5 Focus Group Methods: Best Ways to Reach Your Customers Today

Market Research
5 Focus Group Methods: Best Ways to Reach Your Customers Today

Online focus groups in NZ can provide the same qualitative in-depth feedback as traditional focus groups, but for less cost. Do you want to know more? In this blog post, I will outline the pros and cons of 5 focus group methodologies, available to New Zealand businesses, to see whether your next research project would benefit from online focus group methodology.

This Focus Group blog will cover:

  • Focus Group definition
  • 5 Focus Groups methodologies available in New Zealand
  • Traditional Focus Groups pros and cons
  • Online Focus Group definition
  • Online Focus Group vs Traditional Focus Groups
  • 4 Types of Remote Focus Groups: Online Video Focus Groups, Online Discussion Focus Groups, Text Chat Focus Groups, Text Chat Focus Groups, Hybrid Focus Groups.

What is a Focus Group?

Focus groups have been around for over 80 years and are still a widely accepted cornerstone of qualitative research. Focus group research provides valuable opportunities to bring consumers together to have real conversations with real customers. From these conversations, businesses gain rich insights into the use of their products and services and a deeper understanding of the experiences and beliefs of their target market.  

Focus groups are ideally suited to gathering opinions, beliefs, and experiences relative to:

  • New products and services
  • Marketing initiatives such as packaging, labels, and advertising
  • Target market analysis
  • Competitor analysis

5 Focus Group Research Methodologies Available to New Zealand Businesses

Traditional In-Person Focus Groups

Traditional focus groups are the most well-known form of qualitative research. They are ‘face-to-face’ groups with 8 - 10 participants brought together at a pre-determined location and time to discuss a topic for 1 - 2 hours. An experienced moderator guides the verbal discussion following a structured discussion guide.  

I will briefly outline the pros and cons of traditional focus groups.

Traditional qualitative in-person focus group Christchurch NZ 

Advantages to Traditional In-Person Focus Groups  

The key benefits of this approach include:

  • In-person focus groups, with participants all in the same room, is the preferred method when it is crucial the facilitator gauges participant's initial response to hands-on experiences (such as trying on new clothing designs, perfume testing or food tasting).
  • Well-suited to one-on-one in-depth interviews.
  • Compared to the online methods, it is easier to read and interpret nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and eye contact during an in-person session.

Disadvantages of In-Person Focus Groups

As you read this blog, you will note that several of the disadvantages of traditional focus groups, are in fact benefits of online focus groups. 

Compared to virtual focus group options, the main issues with traditional focus groups include:

  • More expensive with higher overhead costs - venue hire, recording fees and travel, parking, and catering costs.
  • Less input per person compared to an online discussion where all participants answer all questions.
  • Geographic constraints limit accessibility to participants.  If you have customers nationwide, would focus groups in one city be representative of your target market? 
  • More difficult to recruit with a fixed time and location reducing the convenience for participants.
  • More focus groups required as limited to a maximum of 10 participants per group.
  • Slower turnaround times with manual recording of sessions and note taking. 

Online Focus Groups 

Over time, focus group methodology has evolved and adapted to the online environment to reflect the significant changes in technology, connectivity, and how we communicate in today’s digital society. But it was the advent of COVID-19 and social distancing protocols, that were particularly problematic for the traditional focus group approach. Consequently, over the last year, online research methodologies have gained much more acceptance and popularity in New Zealand and this trend is set to continue in 2021.  

The Definition of Online Focus Groups

Online focus groups are focus groups completed online. Participants are screened and qualified and recruited into an online forum platform. Similar to traditional focus groups, discussion is guided by an experienced moderator, participants answer questions, share their feedback and thoughts, and react to others’ answers to create a qualitative exchange of ideas within the online forum.

Online Focus Groups Versus Traditional Focus Groups

The key advantages of online focus groups versus face-to-face focus groups include:

  1. Cost savings with lower overheads from reduced travel, facility hire and catering costs, flowing on to clients.
  2. Broader geographies for participant recruitment from larger and more representative nationwide or global target markets.
  3. Richer output with a blend of both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies and combination of open questions and single or multiple-choice polls.
  4. Share interactive visual aids such as heatmaps, online white boards, videos, and images through a screen share to spur discussion, gather viewpoints and brainstorm. 
  5. Recruiting for online focus groups can be much easier.  Participants of all ages, gender and ethnic groups enjoy engaging with online technology.  Its also easier to ask someone to login from the comfort of their home rather than face rush hour traffic to get to a venue. This means consumers who are typically hard to reach for traditional focus groups i.e. youth, time-pushed professionals, or the rural population, will often participate in an online setting.  In addition, Gen Z and young adults, with their tendency to prefer an online environment, often respond better on their device from their home, rather than in-person.

Gen Z youth engages in Online Focus Group on his PC from the comfort of home NZ


As most New Zealanders now have access to devices and the internet, the main two issues with online focus groups versus in-person focus groups, evolve around:

  • Not being as suitable for testing hands-on experiences such as food tasting or trying on new clothes. 
  • Lack of non-verbal cues and interpreting of body language in an online environment.

4 Types of Remote Focus Groups

Remote or online focus groups are a growing trend with the ability to deliver cost-effective qualitative insights in less time. This section provides a brief overview of the 4 types of online focus groups available in New Zealand (you can click on a title to navigate to a section):

  1. Online Video Focus Group – similar to a Zoom meeting
  2. Online Discussion Focus Group – written interactive discussion
  3. Text Chat Focus Group – text-like conversation threads 
  4. Hybrid Online Focus Group – video plus written discussion

1. Online Video Focus Group

Remote focus groups via videoconferencing, essentially replicate face-to-face groups without the geographic limitation of having to draw the respondents to a single location. This is the only online focus group method where participants cannot be anonymous. Responses are oral and typically they run for 1.5 to 2 hours in real time with 4 to 6 participants logging into a session at a pre-determined time on their familiar devices.   

Although tech-support is often provided throughout online video focus group sessions, to fully participate, participants need the correct technology (such as a computer with a webcam) and browser configurations.  A video recording captures an online video focus group session and can be reviewed for note taking, but depending on the platform used, the transcript of the discussion is not always immediately available.  

Online Video Focus Group Qualitative Research New Zealand

2. Online Discussion Focus Groups 

An online discussion focus group platform (AKA online bulletin board, online forum) is designed for written questions, responses, and discussion. It is an interactive consultation with a panel of up to 30 pre-selected participants, logging in using a private and secure link.  

An online discussion delivers structured questions to the respondent’s device. The respondent then has time to consider and reflect before typing a response. Once they have answered a question, other participants can see and react to the comments, thereby creating a qualitative dialogue. The moderator can also seek clarification on responses and generate further discussion. Participants generally have 3 days to complete their responses and can log in multiple times to achieve this. There is also the option to run the online forum over an extended period e.g. to explore shopping habits over time. 

Advantages of Online Discussion Focus Groups 

Compared to other focus group methods, the key advantages of online discussions include:    

  • Attract a wider pool of participants as there are no geographic or time constraints so participants can login from anywhere and at any time during the research period. They appeal to all demographic segments including those often hard to involve in research e.g. youth, professionals, management, time-pushed busy people, males, and various ethnic groups.
  • More considered responses, increased engagement and reduced group bias with each participant answering every question in their own time.  
  • Anonymity encourages full and open participation with private or highly sensitive topics e.g. views on abortion.  
  • Participants can illustrate their viewpoint by uploading documents, screenshots, images, audio, or videos.
  • Full transcript can be readily generated from the typed responses. This translates to a faster turnaround of results with rich verbatim quotations. 

To learn more about the benefits of online discussion focus group methodology, read our New Zealand case study here.

Online Bulletin Board written questions responses and discussion on PC or mobile

3. Text Chat Focus Groups 

Text chat focus groups speed up the research process and are the fastest way to gather qualitative insights. They also tend to be the cheapest focus group option. Online chats are suited to projects with tight deadlines and budgets. Participants log in on their PC, smart phone or tablet and respond to questions typing text-like short responses. Text chats can be anonymous and typically run for 1.5 hours in real time with 6 to 8 participants logging into a session at a pre-determined time.

Text chats are suitable for fast-flowing groups when you need short top of mind responses to concepts or strap-lines, video commercials and audio clips. The text chat is very lively and fast feedback and allows the group to bounce ideas off each other. However, due to the fast-flowing nature of the text-like conversation thread, there tends to be less interaction between participants and the quality can be influenced by the ability to follow a fast-moving chat conversation.

Online Text Chat gathering Qualitative Research insights NZ

4. Hybrid Focus Groups 

A hybrid focus group is a cross between the online video and the online discussion focus groups. Each participant joins the discussion with both a webcam and a keyboard. The discussion is both verbal and written. Sessions tend to have 6 to 8 participants and run 1.5 to 2 hours in real time.

In Conclusion: Choosing the Right Qualitative Research Method  

Although in-person focus groups are the traditional backbone of qualitative research methodology, with their ability to deliver cost-effective qualitative insights in less time, virtual focus groups are a growing trend in the New Zealand market research industry

Particularly over the last year, the popularity of online focus group options has increased noticeably as New Zealand businesses recognise the benefits of using methodology that better reflects changes in technology, connectivity, and how kiwis prefer to communicate in today’s digital society.  

But in saying that, there is still a place for traditional focus groups. It is important to remember, research methodology should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and the right method will ultimately depend on your research topic, its complexity, sensitivity, and what you hope to achieve from the research.  

Will online focus group methodology be right for your next research project?

Rachel Wells Trailblazer Research business owner NZ

Rachel Wells, Trailblazer Research business owner. With 17 years of research experience, coupled with bank management and recruitment expertise, Rachel has a deep understanding of the current issues facing New Zealand business. Rachel is a passionate advocate for the benefits of using online qualitative research methods (i.e. online focus groups, online discussions, online bulletin boards) to engage more meaningfully with your target market, wherever they may be.  Her goal - To help businesses like yours make better decisions based on rich customer insights.  

To understand whether your next research project is suited to online focus group methodology, please contact Rachel:


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