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Do You Even Data

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Online Community or Traditional In-person Focus Groups?

Let's face it: we live in a "if you can't quantify it, it's not actionable" world. Companies ultimately want to know what their customers want, how much of it they want, and how they want it delivered to them. And they want the numbers to back it up. If you are looking for research that...

  •  Confirms a hypothesis,
  • Has quantifiable, representative results, and
  • Allows for significance testing between relevant subgroups...

...then down the quantitative rabbit hole you go!

BUT.  Sometimes you don't know what you don't know. You may not even have a good starting point in terms of what your customers want or need. This is where qualitative research comes to the rescue!  Traditionally, that has meant in-person focus groups or in-depth interviews. In this framework you can ask the "what" and "why" questions in a less structured format. You can present open-ended questions in an intimate environment and allow the conversation to be dynamic, flexing with the conversation in a way that's not feasible with a closed-ended survey. Another added benefit is the insights gleaned by allowing the participants to interact with each other, not just the moderator, sometimes steering the study in a completely unforeseen direction.

It's a really effective tool, but there are definitely some difficulties:

  • How do I recruit people willing to participate in this kind of research?  People are busier than ever these days, and getting them to come sit in a focus group facility when they have supper to cook, soccer games to attend and work committments is not the easiest hurdle to jump.
  • How much time is managing this focus group going to take from my team?  Setting up facilities, coordinating recruitment, finding a moderator, working up the discussion guide and recruitment rules, attending the actual groups...that's a lot of balls to juggle.
  • How much is this going to cost me?  Travel for the moderator, travel for you, food, and possible hotel stays. Then there's recruitment, facilities rentals, and moderator costs, not to mention incentives. It all adds up pretty quickly, considering that you're collecting data from typically 15 people or fewer.

All these are legitimate concerns with traditional in-person focus groups. They can be overcome, but sometimes your timeline, geographic requirements, or budget simply don't allow for this method.  So what do you do?

In recent years, market research online communities (MROCs), have become a favorable alternative to traditional focus groups. Just like focus groups, this method of data collection is largely qualitative in nature. But, because these studies are conducted entirely online, they avoid some of the common pitfalls of the in-person group. Some of the key benefits include:

1 - Recruiting can be handled entirely via email invitation to an initial "screener" survey.

This allows you to be selective with the final group in addition to selecting participants by segment as necessary for the research. The online method of recruitment helps with reaching the younger age segments as well, traditionally difficult to reach through the phone. And the cost for recruiting is a fraction of what it would be to assemble focus group participants, since all the invitations can be sent out at once.

2 - Since the MROC is conducted online, you have lots of design flexibility.

Discussion guides can incorporate activities that are problematic for in person focus groups, such as image and video reviews (including markup exercises), website evaluations, and multi-media responses.

3 - Forget about travel!

Participants can log in when they have time over the course of a week, two weeks, or however long you need rather than having to show up at a focus group facility at a specific time.  No coordinating with a facility, paying for a moderator to fly to your location, or limiting your timeframe to a very specific window. You can log in from your desk, ask a question of a participant, monitor a conversation, or even send a suggestion to the moderator while the discussion is going on!

4 - You get a lot of "bang for your buck."

A traditional in-person focus group really only allows for about 12-15 participants because of the need to manage the conversation and prevent one or more overenthusiastic participants from dominating the conversation. Not a problem with communities. We've conducted groups as small as 30 but as large as several hundred. This allows us to include a more varied group in terms of demographics, behavioral data, or other relevant segments. Because the conversation is asynchronous, even if one person does have a lot to say, there's no risk of them overwhelming the other participants, who may actually feel more empowered to contribute due to the perceived anonymity of an online environment.

5 - Research that flexes.

Unlike a traditional focus group where the discussion guide is largely set in stone, with limited options for additional discovery if something unusual crops up in the conversation, MROCs can easily change direction during fieldwork to capture emerging opportunities. 

That's a pretty hefty list of advantages. Of course, that's not to suggest that MROCs  don't have their disadvantages. Because you're online, you do miss out on the non-verbal communications that a perceptive moderator will pick up on during an in person group. And speaking of moderators, because the conversation is asynchronous, there are times when a participant might have to wait a little while for an answer to one of their questions, especially in a larger or longer-running community session. Finally, this solution is not a good fit if your target population tends to struggle with technology, either by difficulty in use, or limited access.  If your customers fall into those categories, a traditional in person group might still be the best fit for your research. Otherwise, consider trying an MROC for your next discovery process.  We think you'll be delighted with the results.