Funky Focus Groups: Online Market Research Tools

focusgroupimageHere goes a nerdy article about market research, which, as I have recently found out, can be quite funky!

Every marketer knows this: you can't just go and roll out a marketing campaign without first doing thorough research into what your customers want.

If you are a more or less big and successful company, you'll probably have a budget set aside for outsourcing market research, usually to specialized market research agencies. Sometimes they'll say that they'll do quantitative market research -- polling a lot of people, and processing big volumes of data through a statistical analysis. Sometimes, especially if you need to dig deep into your customers' emotions, aspirations, and attitudes towards your (existing or upcoming) brand, your market research agency will probably propose to conduct qualitative research.

What does your old good Kotler's Marketing Bible (aka “Principles of Marketing”, I've got the 2002 edition, and probably need to buy the latest version!) tell you about qualitative research methods? Page 275 says that they are “focus-group interviewing, elicitation interviews and repertory grid”. Stuff like that. Put into simple terms, as far as focus groups are concerned, it's a person from your market research agency facilitating discussion amongst the group members, digging out the good and relevant stuff which you will later use in your marketing campaign. Whereas you, the client, are sitting behind a one-way window observing the whole thing. The main limitation here is that you can't interact with the facilitator to fine-tune the discussion and make immediate comments about what is happening. For the rest, the good old focus groups have worked fine this way for decades.

At least, this was my main understanding about the logistics of qualitative research involving focus groups until I visited a Belgian market research consultancy called InSites. Based in Ghent, this agency has a truly international focus, probably due to its innovative approach towards using the Internet in market research. I "stumbled upon" the home page of InSites purely by chance, and was invited to come to an informative session about advertising research. One of the most interesting things I learned there, and wanted to share on my blog, was the way that InSites uses the Internet to conduct focus group interviews.

Once a focus group has been assembled, participants are given a short training on how to use the InSites online tool. Once they log in, they can then join the online chat moderated by someone from the agency. You, as a client, can observe what's going on in the chat room. Besides, unlike in traditional focus group discussions, in the online version you can talk directly with the moderator. This can allow you to ask him or her to move the discussion in the direction you see fit. For obvious reasons, you can't access the chat room – the discussion flow there should remain as uninterrupted as possible, with only the moderator orchestrating it.

I thought this was a very simple yet smart approach towards conducing focus group discussions. It reminded me about the success that IE Business School (where I got my MBA) has had with its online Executive MBA. I did the full-time program and spent an unimaginably large number of hours in the classroom, but I've always been amazed at the ease with which some of my friends from the executive MBA took part in class discussions online. In case of IE, this stuff works pretty well, and the program was even ranked as number 5 globally by FT in 2008.

So, I can see why the online approach used by Insites can be interesting. First, they can put together a focus group consisting of participants who live far from each other – their travel costs are therefore eliminated.  Like this:

Focus Group

You get more value for money, I suppose. You as a client can also be located anywhere in the world. I would imagine that discussions in the chat room are quite free-flowing, provided the moderator does his job well.

I see a number of limitations, too. I would argue that the relevance of the online focus group tool depends on your product and target audience. What if you are rolling out a revolutionary anti-aging face cream to 60+ women? You'd need to be sure your focus group participants are comfortable using the computer. Even if you've managed to convince them to participate in your Internet focus group, they need to be able to type relatively quickly to participate in the online chat. Otherwise, you can let a lot of interesting observations go past simply because they can't keep up with the pace.

Also, the dynamics of an online chat room are difficult to compare with the dynamics of a real group. In a traditional focus group, a savvy moderator would be able to notice and interpret participants' body language – an important element which is inexistent online. Even if videoconferencing would be part of the online focus group (which it doesn't seem to be, at least at this stage), I imagine that the respondent's body language would still be different in front of a video camera. And the moderator would miss a lot of cues he would normally catch in a real group.

That said, some brands are probably better off using the online qualitative research than others. First of all, online brands (ie those which do not have any offline presence, think Facebook) would probably find it quite logical to do their market research online. Also those which need to develop good online presence and have many potential Internet and computer-savvy customers.

Even nerdy market research can be fun, or am I saying this because I am a total online “geek”? To summarize, the usefulness of the online focus group facilitation tool I saw at InSites is its simplicity. After all, I understood pretty much everything about its functionality even though it was explained in Dutch, which I am only beginning to learn.

To summarize, I think that the described online focus group chats are quite a funky approach to qualitative research, but I would find difficulties imagining they could replace the traditional thing. As a complementary tool, they seem useful, particularly because they are cost-efficient, easy to use and, importantly, give you an immediate trail of participants' comments which you can later go back to for your marketing strategy purposes.