The Business Dictionary defines a focus group as ‘a small number of people (usually between 4 and 15, but typically 8) brought together with a moderator to focus on a specific product or topic. Focus groups aim at a discussion instead of on individual responses to formal questions, and produce qualitative data (preferences and beliefs) that may or may not be representative of the general population.’
With the increasingly widening applications of the digital world it was natural for the focus group to migrate from face-to-face venue based meetings to online discussions. There are two types of focus group that have emerged in this regard, webcam and text based, both of which use the online setting to their advantage.
From a researcher’s point of view, participants of online focus groups don’t have to travel to an independent venue which means that recruitment doesn’t need to be focused on certain areas. Neither does it need to take into account travel time or expenses. From the participant perspective, participation is far more convenient. They can put their slippers on, make their favourite cup of tea and relax.
But what is the difference between webcam and text based focus groups? Online aside, which one is better? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each.
Webcam Focus Groups
Some would argue that the webcam focus group imitates the traditional face-to-face focus group best as you are able to hear participants as well as see their facial expressions and body language. Every participant speaks in turn so that participants don’t speak over one another.
The main drawback of the webcam focus group is the requirement for high Internet speed/bandwidth. Will participants have fast enough broadband to offer them an uninterrupted, glitch-free experience? Or will the session be disjointed as group members wait for the images to load, for the sound to buffer, etc.? Flow is incredibly important in a successful focus group; poor Internet connections can be severely detrimental.
You also have a challenge with the webcam itself. Some respondents prefer online research participation over face-to-face due to the anonymity it provides. The same goes for text based focus groups over video chat, not everyone likes to be ‘broadcast’ to a group, who are strangers. It is by no means impossible to find participants who are happy to use a webcam but you are likely to encounter occasional hesitation.
On a final webcam note, you do of course need to ensure that participants have a webcam they can use. Whilst mobile devices (tablets, smartphones) make this much easier today, not everyone wants to use them for video chat in terms of their data allowance. Willingness to do so is something to bear in mind when recruiting.
Text Based Focus Groups
Critics of the text based focus group would say that it is less informative than video chat as you can’t see a person’s face or body language. Fortunately though, there are emoticons, and these can be a great way for participants to express how they feel.
The risk of Internet speeds not being up for the challenge are smaller here as text is less demanding. In the text based focus group you are relying on participants being comfortable to express their thoughts through words with relatively fast typing skills. Assuming this and experienced moderation, rapport and flow are a given.
The main advantage of text based focus groups is that they do offer participants anonymity. Not only does this remove the video chat recruitment barrier but it can also lead to more candid discussion. ‘Hidden’ behind their screennames, participants are more likely to open up and be more expressive in their opinions and feedback. The possibility of ‘group think’ is also reduced as anonymity lessens the group influence and any pressure to agree.
Devices capable of live text chat are of course readily available and owned and the data allowance for such usage is minimal.
Which one to choose?
That depends! Here are a few things to consider when deciding between a text based and webcam focus group.
1. What is the topic of your discussion?
Will participants be comfortable talking about your subject matter via video chat? Or are they likely to shy away if they see several unknown faces looking at them?
2. Who is your demographic?
Are they likely to be digitally savvy and comfortable using webcams, microphones, speakers, etc.?
3. What is your research objective?
If you want to see how consumers interact with a product for example, a webcam focus group is likely the better choice.
4. Is reflection part of the insight you seek?
If so a text based focus group will be much better; everyone is typing their own thoughts in their own time as opposed to managed speaking slots.