Get out from behind the mirror (or can you give up your chocolate?)

Qualitative research has changed so much in the last few years.  For a while there, it looked as if quantitative survey technology was so far outpacing it’s emotional cousin that we were all destined to stay behind the ever present mirrored wall, in rooms full of snacks, soft drinks and the occasional bottle of wine (more on that later).

But just when it seemed little change was coming on the Qualitative side, along came “virtual” focus groups with everything from “Bulletin Board” interactions to live video feeds.  At first, I was pretty skeptical.  I have been on the agency and corporate side of so many focus groups, that I’ve lost count.  But was there really something out there that could replace (or augment) a traditional “go around the room” moderated focus group?

First, I’ll tell you my two most memorable focus group moments.  The first is when the participants in the group were so angry at the subject matter, that they literally stood up during the group, faced the mirror, and started shouting at the clients.  This was a long time ago, but I’ll never forget what the client did.  She turned to her colleagues and said in a very loud voice: “We are screwed.”  And for the first time ever, I saw someone open a bottle of wine in the client room and start drinking.  As an aside, I always wondered whom the liquor was for.  My second most memorable moment was when I was on the corporate side, and a product manager on our team was so nervous about the results of the group, that she ate ALL of the chocolate peanut butter cups she could find.  Let’s just say there was an entire fish bowl of them, and she didn’t quite realize that the staff kept filling the bowl.  In a rush to catch a flight back home after the group, she grabbed my arm and said: “I don’t think I can make it.”  I had never thought chocolate poisoning was real until that day.

Which brings me back to my original topic.  Could a virtual group replace not only the always-exciting elements of an in person group, but provide results that were equal or even better?  As the cost of travel and facilities have gone up, many have been forced to try this methodology, and I too was asked to moderate several groups online.

I was more than pleasantly surprised.  While the experience was very different (no waiting in the lobby of a focus facility, hoping the rain wouldn’t keep ten respondents from showing up), I found a virtual focus group delivered on many fronts, especially in providing useful data to my clients.

Here are some interesting findings (non scientific I’m afraid, but then again we are talking about qualitative research):

Peer pressure:  I was able to avoid the typical pressures in an in person group as there were no dominant personalities in the groups, and when someone did try and “take over” a conversation, the software allowed me to gently nudge, push and eventually remove said offender.  Try that in a live group…lots of fun.

Participation: We’ve all seen the quiet mouse in the group, and no matter how hard we try, that person says nothing.  I found that with the ability of respondents to private message online, that issue goes away.  I simply say: “If anyone feels more comfortable responding to me directly vs. in the chat room, send me a message.”  The only way I’ve been able to do that in a live group before is to ask a person to stay after the group leaves, and that is rarely practical.

Geography: Set aside costs for a moment, just the ability to recruit without geographic boundaries is huge.  I can’t tell you how many times the location of a facility has dictated what types of respondents were going to show up (those who didn’t care about sitting in traffic).

Speed and Efficiency: My father and two uncles are (were) attorneys.  I remember going to court with them as a youngster and watching the stenographer at work.  I thought it was the coolest thing to have someone typing everything you said and reading it back to you.  Well, I never wanted that more after reviewing hours of focus group tapes trying to remember what everyone said.  With a virtual group, you have a transcription immediately…and I’m able to use it during the group to go back if I need to.

Cost Savings: I don’t even need to cover this…do I?  Well, the clients don’t have to fly anywhere, the respondent incentive fees can be less, no one is ordering food, and if my client really needs a bottle of wine, well, I’ll throw that in.

Bottom Line:

I don’t think we will ever replace traditional focus groups at a facility.  They serve a purpose, and can be vital to the decision making process, especially for segments of the population that don’t spend a lot of time online (yes, these segments exist).

That being said, I still believe virtual groups are a great place to get good data with an efficient cost model.

If you can give up the free chocolates, step out from behind the mirror and prepare yourself for a new way of talking to your audience, you too will be pleasantly surprised.

Shameless Plug:

Of course if you need help with any of the above suggestions, don’t hesitate to contact me.  I can work with your budget to create a quantitative and qualitative projects that will deliver actionable data to you.



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