Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Focus Groups

When planning a new focus group, it is always worthwhile to sit down for a minute and consider the pros and cons of an online focus group vs. an offline focus group. There is also a third approach: a video focus group.

Text-based online focus groups are not suitable for every qualitative research project. We want to summarize the major pros and cons of a virtual approach.

Advantages of online focus group

Disadvantages of online focus group

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Focus group timing

Conducting a typical online focus group project takes significantly less time.

Focus group price and costs

Online focus groups are cheaper than offline focus groups. You only need an online focus group software and stable internet connection. No rooms with a one-way mirror, no assistants and receptionists, no special technical equipment and staff, etc.

Geographical independency

Respondents don’t need to commute to your offices so you can geographically structure your focus groups and invite people from several cities, regions, states or even continents.

Hard-to-reach respondents

I’m sure you know it, there are target groups who are impossible to get to your place to take part in your focus group. B2B decision makers, developers, and many others. We don’t say it’s a piece of cake to get them to your online project, but it’s much easier according to our experience.

Respondent bias

A more assertive participant can influence the opinions of the other participants, making them disinclined to express their real opinions, and contradict the assertive participant. More assertive respondents tend to assume the alpha role in classical in-person focus groups. Respondent bias is significantly reduced in online focus groups.

Sensitive topics

People usually prefer to answer sensitive questions anonymously, which is not possible during classical offline FGs.

No emotions & spontaneous feedback

Emoticons, emojis, and interjections are the highest expressions of respondent emotions in the text-based discussions, so you can’t expect much more than that. So, if your topic is emotionally and spontaneously oriented, it’s better to choose an offline focus group or a video-based session instead.

Slow session flow (less topics)

The discussed topic range of an online session will cover only about half of an offline FG. This means for example that a 90min online group will cover the content of a 45min offline group. People need time to read the questions first, ponder them and then type up their answers. Keep this in your mind when you plan the schedule.

Senses: no touch, no 3D, no taste ...

You can’t show or pass a physical object to respondents during the online session to touch the product, smell it or try to use it.

This disqualifies online focus groups for many projects. You could send the products or materials in advance to respondents by post; but it’s better to conduct the study in a traditional way in this case.

Active internet users only

Obviously, you attract only active internet users to an online system. If you want feedback from internet non-users, who don’t spend much time online, go the classic way!

Even if you get the internet non-user to the internet app, he won’t be able to type quickly enough or use the common browser functionalities without the help of somebody else.

Technical issues

It’s not very common, but participants can have problems with their computer, internet connection, or just can’t find the email invitation with the session address. 

Deeper insights? Yes and no...

An online focus group can sometimes surprise you  with the depth of respondents’ posts. It might be a result of the non-emotional substance of this method. People can better focus on the topic and questions and are not pushed by the circumstances and personal presence in an unknown environment.

We put the question mark in the title because we are aware there is definitely a wide range of topics which are not suitable for online methodology and if applied you will get much fewer insights, if any. Text-based live chats are also much slower than offline focus groups, which is also a reason for worse results if the topic range and length are not adjusted for online conditions.

Use cases: text-based online focus groups

Here are some topic examples which were successfully conducted as online focus groups:

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Product features

Mobile plans, bank account packages, portfolio structure, product accessories, …

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Political topics

Perception of current affairs and  campaigns.

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Express pretest insights

To adjust claims or texts in the upcoming campaign.

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Service improvements

Perception and evaluation of service provided by the client and competitors. Initial insights for the following quantitative study.

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Website content

Perception of content and website structure. Navigation concepts, UX issues.

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Technical topics

To adjust the details and parameters of the new equipment.

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Customer insights

Customer satisfaction feedback to explore current issues.

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