Why I got off my high horse and embraced online focus groups

Why I got off my high horse and embraced online focus groups

I’ve never met a qualitative researcher who doesn’t love an audience.  Not all focus groups work as well as you might hope but the energy that comes with group discussion, sharing that experience with the client and the buzz of the post-group debrief are all  part of the pay-off that keeps me in love with my job. Who in their right mind would give up the ‘fun’ stuff?

Way back in the early days of the internet dial-up and the limitations of the bulletin-board format made online qual a chore.  It was hard to attract participants, difficult to host and clunky to use.  You’d get answers to your questions (eventually)…but it wasn’t the kind of lively discussion that feeds a researcher’s soul.  Ask me back in the early 2000s and I’d have told you: there’s no substitute for face-to-face – this internet thing will never last.

This is why I was wrong

Web 2.0, improved access to the internet and our growing comfort levels with sharing opinion and information are opening up new possibilities and applications.  Community needs studies, concept or ad testing, ethnographic studies and discussion groups all work in an online environment.    The option for anonymity makes it easier to run discussions on sensitive topics that in the past we’d only have tackled one on one.  Online qual projects can be shaped as stand-alones or as adjuncts to face-to-face discussions or quantitative studies.

Today’s well-run “bulletin-board” is a safe,  accessible, democratic and participatory space.  Modern platforms feel and look familiar so it’s easy – and fun – for research contributors to make the leap from “lurking” to active involvement. Once engaged, participants share, “like”, “comment” and upload photos or video.

As researchers, the online space has forced us to become more agile and responsive.   Clients in turn have the opportunity to talk to more people, more often – and the flexibility to finesse the line of investigation as discussions progress.

At certain times and for certain topics, I still maintain there’s no substitute for face-to-face interviewing however  there are a growing number of occasions where a well-crafted, online project is at least as good – and sometimes a better solution to a research problem than the traditional focus group.   Run well, an online groups will generate all the excitement, energy and insights of face-to-face interactions.

Me?  I’m a convert.  With more tools in the toolbox, there are so many more ways to engage  and ignoring the possibilities does all of us a disservice.  As a research space, it’s only getting better.