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February 2011

The Online Focus Group - An Overview

A traditional focus group is a controlled discussion amongst six to ten participants who usually share a set of common characteristics. These characteristics can be demographic profiles such as age, gender or location, or their commonalities may relate to stated preferences for a certain brand, product, organisation or purchasing behaviour.

The participants are selected on the basis of being a representative sub-set of a wider population. The group is controlled by a trained moderator who, over a period of no more than two hours, guides and controls a conversation to produce a meaningful set of insights from a defined order of questions or topics.

Focus groups are typically used in conjunction with a wider research design, but they are considered a critical tool for researchers when seeking to investigate a broad range of topics such as:

  • New product development
  • Usability and attitude studies
  • Advertising awareness and impact studies
  • Pricing and packaging research etc.

The advent of the internet age has brought with it a whole new set of rules for undertaking marketing research. There are upsides and downsides, critics and advocates, but like it or not the research industry has increasingly looked at the online environment to provide it with new ways of undertaking traditional research practices.

Qualitative research has been no different, and the trend for undertaking focus groups online is an ever increasing one. The format for an online group is very much similar to that of a face to face group, with pre-recruited participants logging on to a customised application at an agreed date and time. i-Link’s online qualitative systems require no additional software, with a standard browser and flash player being all that is required. The moderator controls the group by using a set of preloaded questions and probes, which they can release to the group using a simple point and click format.

The benefits of opting for an online focus group can be summarised as follows:

  • Geographic reach: the online approach allows the researcher to interview respondents in regions that traditionally prove expensive to access, for example regional Australia or internationally.
  • Representative: where required it is now easier to recruit and interview a geographically representative sample, thus increasing the balance and validity of the researcher’s findings.
  • Suitability: the online format can be better suited to certain interview topics:
    • Testing new online products, websites, applications and advertising.
    • The youth market, now communicating and socialising across a variety of online applications, may feel more comfortable, available and willing to communicate their views online.
    • Sensitive topics may also be better facilitated within the neutral online forum as opposed to discussing them in the presence of other individuals.
    • Anonymity: where required, assigning each participant a generic username and password is easy, therefore protecting their identity when participating within the group.
    • Time poor respondents (medics, engineers, senior execs etc.) may be more willing to attend an online location as opposed to an inconveniently located interview room.
  • Overtime interviews: when needing to conduct ongoing or repeat interviews, the online format is an ideal and cost effective way to achieve this task.
  • Cost effective: certain projects expenses can be considered both severe and prohibitive if the researcher needs to travel a considerable distance to moderate a small number of groups. The online format can offer savings on both time and costs in these instances.
  • Cheaper to incentivise: the incentives offered to attend an online focus group are usually less than that of a traditional group, this due to the reduced amount of effort and time required of the participant to attend.
  • Combined approach: due to frequent time and cost pressures, online can be used in conjunction with the traditional approach to interview the entire population as opposed to excluding hard to reach areas.
  • Instant transcript: the online focus group application automatically records each interview in a verbatim format. Once a group has concluded, the researcher can immediately download the transcript and begin their analysis.
  • Respondent control: the moderator has full control over who can access and participate within the group. Overly dominant or inappropriate participants can quickly be made inactive or excluded from the group in a matter of seconds leaving the moderator to continue with the discussion.

i-Link’s online qualitative research is delivered through our two feature laden tools: i-Discuss for conducting over-time focus groups and i-Focus for conducting interactive real-time focus groups.

The online qualitative tools developed by i-Link have been compiled based on the input and feedback of researchers like you. The result is intuitive systems that are easy and effective to use for both moderator and participant. Toolboxes and whiteboard elements are opened and closed as needed, maximising full screen views of the discussion.

Groups can include rich multimedia presentations via in-built whiteboards. Multiple boards, users and groups can be easily managed via the moderator toolbox in either application. Topics, guides and posts are easily uploaded and managed via an intuitive point and click system. With integrated email, group management is a breeze. All transcripts can be exported in a range of formats including Word or Excel. Moderators can also easily view user activity summaries and email participants directly to ensure they remain engaged.

Many other features are enabled including a range of setup modes for the i-Discuss over-time groups (channelled, sequential and ramble styles), plus customisable look and feel. Both qualitative tools can also be linked to i-Question for incorporating additional survey components. For a full features list please go to our website or contact John Leahy at i-Link (+61 2 9262 7171) to organise a complete demonstration.

John Leahy – Business Manager

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