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10 Advantages of Online Communities vs. Traditional Focus Groups (Part 1)

The venerable focus group has been a go-to market research solution since first invented by Robert Merton at the Bureau of Applied Social Research. But, times change and innovation marches on. Today, online communities are clearly a much better choice for many important market research projects. In Part 1 of this 2-part blog post, we'll cover five important advantages of online communities vs. focus groups.

First, let's establish a baseline definition for focus groups and online communities.

Focus Groups

A focus group is a form of qualitative research where a group of people are asked about their opinions, perceptions, ideas and feedback about a product, service or any topic of interest. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to interact with each other and the moderator. Focus groups are typically conducted in person at a central location (or online), last two hours, and include 8-12 participants from a single segment.

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Online Communities

An online community, also known as a "Market Research Online Community" (or MROC), is also a form of qualitative research where a group of people are asked about their opinions, perceptions, ideas and feedback about a product, service or any topic of interest. Questions are posed to the entire group of participants and/or in private, one on one exchanges through a series of interactive research activities such as polls, image markups, discussion boards, and multimedia exercises. Participants interact with each other and the moderator via their computer, tablet and/or mobile phone. Online communities are conducted virtually, last one to two weeks, and include 50-150 participants (often from multiple segments).

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As you can see from a simple comparison of the definitions, online communities offer many advantages over focus groups. So, let's briefly touch on the first five.

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The First 5 Advantages of Online Communities

1. Mobile

Online communities allow consumers to participate from their computer, tablet or mobile phone. They can share their opinions and insights anywhere, anytime and with any device. Unlike in-person focus groups, their feedback doesn't stop after two hours in a conference room (or online chat session). This offers multiple advantages to the marketers and researchers who need to better understand their consumers' real lives and experiences. With an online community, you can engage participants when they are using a product or service, in a store, or at any other important location. Do you want to know their perception of your product on the shelf? Send them into the store and ask them questions as they stand in the isle. Want real-time usability or e-commerce feedback? Give them a link to click and ask them for immediate feedback. The ideas and research applications are limitless once your participants are free to roam.

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2. Millennials

Of course, not every study is focused on Millennials, but when they are your target, online is better. And, online and mobile is best. Let's face it, Millennials don't want to meet at a central focus group facility. And even if they did, it's not their natural habitat. They think online, digital and mobile. They can easily engage with you in the myriad different ways that online communities allow.

3. Multiple Segments

Focus groups generally include 8-10 people from a single segment. On the other hand, online communities allow you to engage 50-150 people across 4-5 different segments in a single study. So, once you've completed your online community, you can easily compare opinions and ideas across each segment of consumers. As a result, a single online community can provide more insights than five focus groups.

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4. More Participants & More Insights

As mentioned previously, a single online community can engage 5-10 times more consumers than a single focus group. While engaging 100+ people in a focus group is impossible, with an online community, it's very straightforward. A a result, companies can harvest 10 times more insights from a single online community in the time it would take ten focus groups to be completed.

5. More Research for Your Budget & Time

Focus groups are very time intensive. For in-person groups, you must travel to the central location and deal with all of the associated travel costs and logistics. When focus groups are out of town, you typically need to allow for 2-3 days of travel time and thousands in travel costs, for a single person. If you are conducting a series of focus groups in multiple regions and cities (or even countries), these time and travel investments can grow exponentially. Online communities eliminate all of these travel and cost barriers. All participants, moderators and observers can join the online community from any location and any device. And because most community "tasks" or engagement activities are asynchronous, participants can share their feedback at any time. So, in most cases, a single online community can deliver insights from 50-150 participants and five or more segments in the the same or less budget (and time) required for a single focus group.

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Is Online Community Research Right for You?

Clearly, the focus groups are a great fit for many research needs. FGI continues to recommend and execute them when appropriate. That said, the many advantages of online communities make them a much better research solution in more and more situations. We hope these advantages (and the next 5 in Part 2) will encourage you to consider this powerful research approach in the future.

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If you would like to learn more about online community research, contact your FGI representative or click here now to request more information.

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Stay tuned for the next 5 online community advantages in Part 2 of this blog post.

Editor's Notes:

1) This post has already generated a tremendous number of comments and ideas on various social media sites. Thanks to everyone who has taken time to contribute. Please keep your ideas and thoughts coming.

2) To be clear, this is Part I of a two-part post. So, while the title says "10 Advantages," Part I has just the first five advantages. Stay tuned for the next five in Part II.

3) While we extol the virtues of online communities (MROCs) in this post, we could easily write a post entitled "10 Advantages of Focus Groups vs. Online Communities." [And come to think of it, we may do just that in the near future.] We want to make it very clear that both solutions deserve a prominent place in everyone's MR toolbox. Focus groups continue to be extremely valuable. That said, the purpose of this post is to challenge your thinking and open your eyes to some truly unique and powerful advantages of online communities.