The Traditional Focus Group and the Online Research Methods: Comparative Characteristics

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The development of modern market research has been astronomical. New methods of knowing the increasingly complex market position are required for effective product placement. Moreover, e-commerce development has seen an unprecedented direct-to-customer opportunity for marketing. The use of segmentation is to determine the present and the prospective customers by their special interests, in an effort to minimize the overall cost of research. Focus groups are a very essential way of getting information and feedback in the marketing fraternity since they enable businesses to launch as well as monitor their strategic marketing plans. It is more so important in enquiring or soliciting feedback about the new products, thereby helping the firms restructure or reinforce their marketing strategies O’Connor & Madge, 2003, p.139). This paper outlines the changes in the use of both traditional focus group and online research methods.

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Modern market research has evolved over time, where new advanced methods of knowing the increasingly complex market position are required for effective product placement. Information about market position is arguably the best asset that a business entity can rely on for proper market positioning and success realization (Ahern, 2005, p. 56). Perhaps this explains why modern businesses have gone into the information search with gastro resulting into generating numerous approaches to business all over the globe (p. 57). Moreover, e-commerce development has seen an unprecedented direct-to-customer opportunity for marketing. The use of segmentation is to determine the present and the prospective customers by their special interests, in an effort to minimize the overall cost of operating business (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 79).

Background to Focus Group Research

Focus group discussion is one of the most popular methods for conducting qualitative research, with numerous organizations preferring its use due to its interactive nature (Montoya-Weiss, Massey & Clapper, 1998, p. 714). It provides the best way of listening directly to customers thus helps them to gain insights that are more useful than the management’s shoot-from-the-hip approach to marketing decision making (p. 715). Without qualitative research, many business executives miscalculated the need of the consumer by using their own opinions to develop their own theories about market demand (p. 717). The focus groups approach therefore came at a time when many researchers faced in participants’ recruitment problems, reduced rate of response, and the high increase in cost of focus group discussions (p. 719). The traditional face-to-face focus group discussion is a well-established particular type of group interview meant to collect data since the early 20th century. The global expansion of internet use access has been in an astronomical trend in the last two decades, prompting an easy access to peoples’ professional and personal lives due to its fast and easy accessibility (Marshall, 1999, p. 115). Furthermore, in the recent years, internet has gained recognition as a legitimate tool for research that offers new opportunities for the researchers to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research, thereby easing the logistics nightmares associated with traditional face-to-face focus group research.

Rushkoff (2005, p. 99) observes that even though traditional focus group has significantly experienced difficulty in recruiting this group of people, the real difficulty is yet to be observed considering the increasingly complex schedule for the modern people who seem busy through out. It thus the use of online focus groups would seal this gap and offer an important bridge to the authentic research findings (p.111).

A traditional focus group discussion requires that the participants physically join the discussion groups, a process that may not be feasible with some individual personalities, if not physical (Stewart & Williams, 2005, p.395). Talking of the latter, a recent (2003) study by, commissioned by a technology leader in cochlear ear implants, meant to seek feedback from a select group of deaf and hearing-impaired individuals who were considering a new surgical intervention that relied on the implants revealed some striking findings (Eysenbach & Wyatt, 2002, p.85). The management wanted to understand the perspectives of each prospective patient’s process of decision-making (p.86). This new technology was to offer quantum improvement over the well-known old type hearing aids. Patients’ views revealed that the decision to proceed with such an “experiment” sort of interventional treatment was more complex as compared to use of a familiar hearing aid, considering the fact that surgery is apart of it (p.88).

Traditional focus group approach has its inherent limitations that jeopardize their effectiveness that online focus group approach has successfully overcome since its emergence. Some of the limitations are:

  1. Geographical limitation; doing a focus group discussion across the border, be it regional, national, or international, can be very much intriguing. Never before have researchers managed to gather information very effectively in such a diverse region. It is logistically difficult to travel to all these locations to do research and therefore the opening of the online techniques for doing research is much more practical in this era,
  2. Economic limitation; the success of any research is wholly dependent on the amount of funds available. Traditional focus method is thus not an exception since it involve travelling expenses, time spent compensation, compensating data transcribers, printing and photocopying material and many more expenses,
  3. Time limitation; traditional FGD requires much time for its effectiveness- a time that most of the researchers may not have in the first place. The present world of progression has made the traditional method so tedious despite the necessity to speed up the research process (Moloney, Dietrich, Strickland & Myerburg, 2003, p.274-280).

Online Focus Group Research

In an effort to establish, how the methodology of online focus group works, I would like to precede it by examining brief information on the present technological advancements associated with online communication. According to Holge-Hazelton “internet communication is a written quasi that has the potential to use the strengths of both conversation and writing, and since the ‘feel’ of it is oral, it has called multi-loguing.” (Moloney , Dietrich, Strickland & Myerburg, 2003, p.282)

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O’Connor & Madge (2003, p.134) splits and groups the current forums for internet communications two; Synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (a not-in-real-time) communications. He says that depending on the need, both methods are applicable at the same time, i.e. in a combined manner (p.136). The difference between the two approaches is in their organization, where a synchronous mode refers to where the participants are simultaneously online at a time prearranged in order to allow them (participants) to respond to each other in a form of conversational exchange of information (p.138). The asynchronous mode on the other hand refers to a website that allows participants to freely log in during a particular period, read other people’s contributions, and respond by posting comments, not relying on any other person’s time of participations, hence offering the convenience (p.139-140).


Case study

Critical role of Online Focus Groups to collect data in hard-to-include populations: examples from paediatric oncology (Heary & Hennessy, 2002, p.47).

The study conducted by the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research purposefully to evaluate the methodology of online focus group discussions within the setting of paediatric oncology revealed several issues as concerns the respondents’ responses (p.48).

Methodology; Qualitative study consisted of a separate moderated asynchronous online discussion groups with 7 paediatric cancer patients aged between ages of 8 and 17, 11 parents, and 18 survivors of childhood cancer aged between 8 to 17 at diagnosis (p.51).

Results; the result indicated that all the three groups of participants could be actively engaged over a one-week period (p.52). The respondents highly appreciated the flexibility and the convenience that comes with online focus group discussion also citing the ability to log in at their own time as well as place to join the discussion (p.53). The adolescent patients and survivors emphasized that the anonymity experienced made them feel comfortable to express their views in details (p.54). More importantly, the findings indicated all groups strongly preferred the online group discussions (p.55).

Conclusion; the findings indicate that online focus group methodology is a feasible tool for collecting qualitative data within hard-to-include populations (p.56). The evaluations suggest that the online group methods provide an opportunity for the participants to express their views in a manner that they could have not done with traditional focus group discussion (p.57).

Focus group terminologies

Focus group discussion has gained popularity as earlier stated, even though traditional face-to-face focus group discussion led the way in the early years of research. According to Mann & Stewart (2000), several distinctive terminologies is used to denote online focus groups discussions. For example, computer mediated or internet-based focus groups, electronic focus groups, chat-based focus groups, or virtual panel discussions (p.131). The underlining factor is that all these terminologies are connected to a research method that rely on internet in an attempt to spatially unite as well as possibly temporarily separate the research participants in the text-based group discussions, principally getting guidance from the moderator (Reid & Reid, 2005, p.131). Birnbaum (2004) however says that the term online focus group should does not mean, “chat rooms or even open panel discussions where participants are free to log in at any time, and post their comments on a random topic” (p.803).

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Merits of Online Groups

Many of the recent researches have been successful because of the use of online focus group discussions (Heary & Hennessy, 2002, p.48). All the research has shown specific indictors in recruitment ease, convenience for participants, benefits accruing out of the research, and most importantly, the quality of data collected through the method (p.49).

1. Access to diverse populations

The first and the most obvious benefit of online focus group method of research as illustrated by the above case study is its ability to facilitate accessibility to populations that traditional standard research techniques like the traditional focus group (TFG) discussions have ignored in the past. It thus enhances the dialogue between the participants who may not get the opportunity to converse with each other in other research methods (Elwyn, Edwards, Gwyn & Grol, 1999, p.754). The internet researches has enabled many modern researchers to reach and recruit disabled or terminally ill participants, marginalized groups, households, and the geographically and socially isolated group, thus reinforcing the authenticity of data collected in terms of representation (p.755). Duffy, (2002, p.89) further explains that it is through the web that many researchers are able to reach international drug dealers and interview them, something unimaginable with traditional focus group method.

By the use of email lists as well as chat, it is easy to organize and create virtual groups that can bring together members to chat and exchange ideas. The members of the virtual groups interact remotely and identify themselves (Duffy, 2002, p.87). He explains that the participation of the group members I made possible either through disclosed participation or through ‘lurking’. Establishment of online groups and inviting participants from diverse groups and geographical location achieves the diversity (Moloney, Dietrich, Strickland & Myerburg, 2003, p.283). Stewart and Mann outline other main benefits in this area; participant friendly, conducive to easy dialogue, good for testing ideas in an informal environment, the environment for communication is familiar thus safe, and extension of the research population (p.285).

2. Easy geographical and temporal access to users

Gathering data from diverse groups is a very important aspect in research (Marshall & Gretchen, 1999, p. 115). A researcher who wants to gather information in London will not require the same preparations as another researcher who wants to conduct a similar research in all the common wealth states (p.117). There is the obvious difference in cultural diversity, geographical distances, and many more factors (p.118). It would therefore be irresponsible for a researcher to treat the differences insignificantly sine it is practically difficult to gather data in all the common wealth states than London alone. Online methodology is the only viable method to solve the problem.

Marshall & Gretchen identify specific benefits on this area as:

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  • online groups provide a naturalistic setting good for studying group dynamics,
  • crates diversity due to global recruitment,
  • members of the group understand technology communication,
  • more time can be created for more advanced discussion,
  • easy access to pools of potential interviewees,
  • easy access to respondents any time of the day, and
  • that no physical effects that can emanate from physical location’s setting or interview process (p.119).

Cost effectiveness

Steawart & Eckmann states that online exchanges provide a future cost-effective, cross-cultural research (Rushkoff, 2005, p.78). This could be true because a researcher does not need to globe trot to get the desired information. Rushkoff therefore cites several practical and economic benefits of online focus group discussions: the ease of recruitment through negotiation on emails reduces the travel, venue, and transcribing costs. There is also the reduced need for synchronous interview times; the reduced cost of access on the reading and composing interactions offline; easy storage of information; ease of evaluation; and ease of publishing the result online for easy access (p.79-81).

3. Transcription bias elimination

Online focus method can easily reduce the transcription bias that is very common with traditional method of focus groups (Mann & Stewart, 2000, p. 43). The electronic means for raw data gathering and maintenance makes it easy to diminish understanding and transcription errors and biasness from human. It is therefore much simpler to manage data electronically as opposed to hard copy context (p. 44)

Online Focus Group Research limitations

Despite the numerous merits associated with online focus group research, it has various weaknesses revealed during previous studies done by the different scholars. Roberts and Wilson state, “The philosophy under pinning information and communication technology (ICT) is not wholly compatible with that which underpins qualitative research. ICT is based largely on logical, objective and quantifiable procedure whereas a qualitative research requires a more subjective, interpretative stance and seeks to explore meaning (Mann C & Stewart, 2000, p.57). On this understanding of the philosophies involved, it is argued that the role of computers software in qualitative data analysis is limited” It is therefore important to recognize the outlined limitations (p.59).

There is also the issue of sampling. There is the possible difficulty in monitoring the existence of bias in the sampling procedure and methods, mainly when conducting discussions in certain discussion groups (Mann C & Stewart, 2000, p.68). This gets complicated further when participants disappears very quickly (a common scenario) thus making follow up of interviews virtually impossible (p.71). The fact that demographic composition of online groups is not easy to authenticate due to concealing of identity by participants makes the method more worrisome (p.72). The technology and language limitation in some geographical locations also adds more complication to the process of online focus group discussion. This is because “most of the group that uses internet are young, educated, and are overwhelmingly agile male” (74).

Another interesting observation is that internet users have developed an internet culture that would be important in the analysis of online research. To minimize the difficulty that come with typing, majority of internet users have developed their own language, with abbreviations that are acceptable to peers but may be complicated for researchers and other new participants O’Connor & Madge (2003) argues that this is a serious problem since researches most researches are not discriminatory (p.143).

Future research options

Online focus group research has generated some yet to be answered questions in the field of research. One of such limitations is the lack on non-verbal signals (Morgan D. & Krueger, 1998, p.41, Elwyn, Edwards, Gwyn. & Grol, p. 1999, p. 755). The ultimate conclusive reaction about the loss of cues in an online communication is varied, with different researchers and experts giving both negative and positive responses regarding its use. One such demerit of lack of non-verbal cues is the nature of communication that seems less personal as well as the high possibility of misinterpreting written communication, giving justifiable assumption that online research environment creates a possibility of negative impact on the group dynamics (Elwyn, Edwards, Gwyn & Grol, 1999, p.19). There exist differences between group dynamics in traditional focus group and online focus group discussions exist. Researchers accept that there has never been a conclusive evidence to justify that indeed the internet is an impersonal environment communication, or as some may put it, “an impoverished” channel of communication. “A systematic comparison of both the process and the outcomes of both the process and the outcomes of each format will allow researchers to apply the appropriate focus group design, depending on the issues at stake and the purpose aimed at.” (Eysenbach G, Wyatt, 2002, p. 15)

The other important area that would require further investigation is the preference that the respondents display in response to the different modes of group discussions. The evaluations of research methods used by the participants may affect their willingness to disclose personal information, and most importantly the willingness to participate in a similar research in future (Rhodes, Bowie, & Hergenrather, 2005, p.160). The disturbing question here is whether methodologies in online research that seem to relate more closely to the needs of the participants are prerequisite to involve a new generation of potential respondents (p.162).

The existence of unique relationship; (Rezabek, 2009,web) observes a unique benefit that accrues from internet based group discussion. He states, “The relationship developed on-line can become strong and personal in a very short time, thus some participants can become very involved in online interviews if they are committed to the subject of the research for personal or social reasons.” However, this relationship relies on theory relating to the works done online and thus a further investigation is required to authenticate this theory (web).


Focus groups are a very essential way of getting information and feedback in the marketing fraternity since they enable businesses to launch as well as monitor their strategic marketing plans. It is more so important in enquiring or soliciting feedback about the new products, thereby helping the firms restructure or reinforce their marketing strategies O’Connor & Madge, 2003, p.139). In a specific note, “focus groups can be used by companies intending to develop, package, name, or test market a new product, to discuss, view, and/or test the new product before it is made available to the public“(p.142).

The use of focus group research methodology is critical in the future of market research. The paper has underlined some of the issues associated with online focus group research in comparison with traditional focus group research. It is practical to conclude that there is a very important aspect of online focus group discussions; that it holds a special position in the future market research considering its speed and accessibility of the large proportion of demographic and geographical respondents. I would not wish to conclude that online focus group discussion is an immediate replacement for traditional focus group research, but that market researchers should prepare themselves for its continuous and rising alternative for many researchers in not only the field of marketing, but also the entire research fraternity.


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