Qualitative research, like most things in modern life, has adapted to the times. We now frequently employ digital methods to conduct research, but we still also use “traditional” methods, such as in-person focus groups, in-person one-on-one interviews (in-depth interviews), and phone interviews. Our main goal in qualitative research is to have real conversations with real customers, prospects, and channel partners. Through a structured discussion guide, we lead participants through conversation points, creative exercises, and ideation sessions. During these conversations, we’re able to pull out incredibly rich data that gives us a far deeper perspective into how people think, perceive brands/products, and it helps us learn what they expect and want from a brand.
With digital methods, we’re able to replicate – as best we can – in-person conversations and sessions through online formats that may include webcam focus groups and mobile data capture. If you’re trying to understand which method is preferable – online or in-person focus groups – here is a quick pro and con list of each method.
Online focus groups: Pros
In an online focus group, 3 to 6 people is the ideal sample size. (An in-depth interview, which can also be done online, is a different form of research, where a moderator leads an interview with just one participant). Groups will last anywhere from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours. Ideally, all of the participants are linked through webcams so they can see each other, and the moderator is able to share ideas through a screen share and by loading up stimulus ideas onto a screen. Here are some pros of online focus groups:
- Participants can be drawn from a nationwide sample
- People can participate from the comfort of their homes or offices – they don’t need to travel to a focus group facility
- Participants are able to still see each other through the webcams, leading to a richer discussion than through a phone conversation alone
- Online focus groups often cost less; there are no travel costs or focus group facility rental costs. However, there still are fees for using online qualitative software
Online focus groups: Cons
Online focus groups offer convenience and can be set up quickly. Furthermore, being able to draw from a nationwide sample can be particularly useful in situations where it is difficult to find a local sample representative of the population that needs to be studied. However, there are some drawbacks. Here are a few to consider:
- Participants need to have the correct technology – a computer with a webcam, and typically certain browser configurations. This can limit the population to only people who have this equipment, which narrows the participant range
- Online technology, even a program developed specifically for qualitative research, isn’t perfect. The technology can be crash or have issues
- The virtual format doesn’t capture the richness of people together in a room, reading each other’s body cues and participating in exercises that require more than just speaking back and forth
In-person focus groups: Pros
In an in-person focus group, a typical participant size is 4 to 8 people. Groups will last anywhere from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours, and the discussion will range from brainstorming exercises (new product ideation), to product concept feedback, to discussions about business or personal viewpoints. With a group format, participants hear others’ ideas, which often spurs deeper discussion and a greater breadth of ideas. At InterQ, we always incorporate “projective” techniques, which are often done individually. We have participants write down their responses and go through a series of imaginative exercises. By blending in projective techniques with traditional discussion, we’re able to mitigate against “group think” and ensure that people aren’t being biased by others in their responses.
Here are some “pros” of in-person focus groups:
- We’re able to use the group format to encourage brainstorming and encourage discussion among participants
- Because people are in the room together, non-verbal cues are a rich data source and contribute to how others may respond
- We can incorporate a wider variety of written and brainstorming exercises that may include everything from collages to having participants team up and sketch out concepts together
- The moderator can pick up on non-verbal cues and facilitate the conversation more personally
In-person focus groups: Cons
As much as we love in-person focus groups at InterQ (and we use them often!), there are some drawbacks, and, depending on the study, we may opt for online groups instead. Here are some cons of in-person focus groups:
- Cost is a prohibitive factor to assembling a group – either because of moderator travel costs or focus group facility rental costs
- We have a very narrow sample size and need to draw from a nationwide, versus a local sample
- The discussion lends itself better to an online format; i.e., a lot of screen sharing and exercises where we want participants to go online and do some searches before coming back with their responses
Online or in-person focus groups? Great options for a variety of situations
Ultimately, the study design – either online focus groups or in-person focus groups – will depend on the particular research question and participant sample that a company has. The final study design will be carefully crafted to maximize the type of data and discussions that will further the goal of the project.