Online Focus Group or 6 Traditional Focus Groups: Case Study

Case Study
Online Focus Group or 6 Traditional Focus Groups: Case Study

With the advent of COVID-19 and social distancing there has been a distinct global move towards remote qualitative research methodologies such as online focus groups. But what types of projects are suited to online qualitative research methods, and what are the benefits?  

In this blog post, I will lead you through a New Zealand market research case study, highlighting how a recent qualitative research project benefitted in 9 different ways, with the use of online discussion focus group methodology versus traditional focus groups.

This qualitative research case study will cover: 

  • Online discussion focus group methodology definition
  • Recruitment of focus group participants
  • Flexibility and convenience for focus group participants
  • Discussion flow
  • Increased focus group engagement
  • High quality output
  • Benefits to client

Online Focus Group - Consumer Research – New Zealand Case Study

In late 2020, 6 in-person consumer focus groups were scheduled on behalf of an independent Crown entity. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions imposed by a COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland, the research could not proceed with the traditional focus group format. 

After assessing various alternative qualitative research methodologies, the client decided to proceed with the project using moderated online discussion focus groups.  

What is an Online Discussion Focus Group?

An online discussion focus group is an interactive consultation typically running over 3 days. Using their own choice of device, a panel of up to 30 pre-selected participants, login to a moderated online research platform using a private and secure link. The platform is designed for written questions, responses, and discussion.
An online forum is a powerful qualitative research tool to anonymously reflect on thoughts and opinions to set questions, provide written responses and be included in penned group discussion with other participants in the group.

Use of devices at an Online Discussion Group

Recruitment of Focus Group Participants

South Auckland was the original location planned for the in-person focus groups due to its ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic diversity. This hard-to-reach demographic target market was replicated across the online discussion participants which included a broad range of ethnic, socio-economic and age groups.  

Importantly, the geographic limitations that apply to in-person groups were eliminated, and we were able to recruit participants for the study, from throughout New Zealand.

The original plan was for 6 in-person groups of 10 participants. The online methodology allowed us to utilise the opinions and experiences of 60 participants, spread over just two online discussion focus groups. This greatly reduced overhead costs, time, and manpower.

Flexibility and Convenience for Focus Group Participants

There are constraints in attracting participants to in-person focus groups at a fixed time and location. Online participants benefited from the increased convenience and flexibility of logging into the online forum when it best suited them. Over a research period of 3 days, they logged on at any time and from anywhere using their familiar devices.   

Participants found the online discussion platform to be user-friendly and as easy to navigate as any social media site.

Use of devices at Online Discussion Group

Private and Sensitive Research Topic

This research focused on the highly private and sensitive topics of personal experiences with borrowing money. Compared to an in-person situation, the online space, anonymity, and often participating from the security of their homes, provided a comfortable environment for participants to share their personal experiences.  

Discussion Flow

In most in-person focus groups, input to questions is shared across participants and part of the moderator’s role is to reduce group think influence. The discussion board works quite differently using a blend of both qualitative and quantitative question types.  

With this project, each participant responded to set single or multiple-choice polls and open text questionsPoll results and responses from other participants were only displayed once a participant had answered a question. This procedure, where everyone answered every question, reduced potential bias and domination by any participants. 

The relative anonymity of the online methodology, compared to in-person, encouraged more open and honest sharing of experiences, thoughts, and opinions. Participants were comfortable sharing both their good and their bad experiences. They were also encouraged to interact with other participant’s responses creating a qualitative dialogue. 

As part of a group, they were very engaged, supportive, and empathetic to others. The conversation flowed, sometimes steered, and probed by the moderator, but often initiated by the participants themselves which led to valuable and unexpected insights.  

Virtual focus group participant logins on devices from the comfort of his home

Increased Focus Group Engagement

No matter their assertiveness, every participant in the virtual focus group had an equal chance of being heard. Individual participants engaged in the online panel anywhere from 1.5 to 4 hours compared to the average 12 minutes during an in-person focus group (typical for a 2-hour session with 10 participants).  

This increased input and engagement reflected the time each participant spent answering every set question in the online discussion, additional probing by the skilled moderator, reading other responses and their interaction with other participants conversation threads. 

We received amazing feedback from many of the online forum participants thanking us for the opportunity to participate:

The fact that it was anonymous made me feel that I could write freely.
The interactive aspect was great, and I enjoyed it.
I found it reassuring that other people have been in similar situations to mine.
The questions were very clear and understandable.
It was a real pleasure to have taken part in the online discussion.

Client Observes Discussion

Similar to an in-person focus group, the online research platform provides a backroom where clients and stakeholders logged in to observe the discussion and watch it unfold.    

High Quality Output

Compared with the manual processes required to transcribe traditional focus groups, in this case study, the use of online discussion research methodology had many advantages.

The input from 60 engaged participants provided a robust, high quality, and in-depth discussion. This comprehensive dialogue stemmed from the way online panel responses reflect more detailed and carefully thought through responses whereas in-person focus groups capture immediate shorter responses.

As all responses were typed in the online discussion, 400 pages of highly accurate transcript of the entire discussion was immediately available in Word or Excel.  

The transcript clearly identified the source of every comment or poll response resulting in valuable demographic insights from the use of pre-set individual demographic data. 

Example of demographic information above a verbatim comment or poll response:

Posted by GF (Income: $40k - $50k, Ethnic Group: Pacific Islands, Age: 26 - 45, Gender: Female, NZ: NI, Residence: Urban, Household: Multi-generational or extended family) on 07 Sep 2020 12:48 AM

The transcript provided numerous rich verbatim quotations which clearly told a story about a subject which Kiwis traditionally deem too private and sensitive to share.  

Benefits to Client - Online Focus Group versus Traditional Focus Group

Compared to the planned face-to-face focus groups, how did our client in this case study, benefit from the use of online discussion focus group methodology?

Fast turnaround of research findings
Cost savings with lower overhead costs 
Increased input and engagement
Richer output with blend of qualitative and quantitative research
Broader nationwide pool of participants without geographic limitations
Robust, high quality, and in-depth discussion
Lowered group think influence and potential bias
Highly accurate transcript and rich verbatim quotations
Valuable and unexpected insights

What did our client say about the online discussion?

The engagement in the online discussion was phenomenal.
Great data collection tool for the consumer voice.

In Conclusion: Powerful Consumer Insights

This case study clearly demonstrates that online discussion focus groups provide comprehensive and robust research findings that drive action.  They are a highly effective and intuitive way to engage and understand your customers using modern remote qualitative research methodologies. 

Powerful consumer insights are only a click away, so why not take this opportunity to see whether an online discussion focus group is the best option for your next research project.

To learn more about online qualitative research methodologies, read about the 5 focus group methods available to New Zealand businesses.

Rachel Wells, Trailblazer Research 

Qualified in business and combining research, bank management and recruitment expertise, Rachel is passionate about finding better ways to do things. She is a great fan of online qualitative research methods, particularly online discussions, as she has seen first-hand the phenomenal engagement that leads to powerful customer insights. 

To find out if your next research project is suited to online forum methodology, please contact Rachel: 

Mobile 0274850030