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Online Focus Group vs Traditional Focus Group | Differences and Similarities

When you hear the term “focus group”, the image that appears in your head is likely to be that of a group of strangers gathered around a small table inside a sterile corporate setting.

Adam R.
March 22, 2023

When you hear the term “focus group”, the image that appears in your head is likely to be that of a group of strangers gathered around a small table inside a sterile corporate setting. For decades, this kind of intimate consumer testing has allowed businesses to gather important feedback on their products and services. These in-person meetings were costly, and cumbersome - but they got the job done; that is, until the internet brought about online focus testing.

Even before the pandemic, marketers were turning their attention away from traditional audiences and putting it on online test audiences instead. Now, in our increasingly work-from-home and socially-distanced world, companies are switching to online focus groups in droves.

The reasons why businesses all over the globe are switching to online audiences for their testing needs are numerous. Today we will highlight some of the key focus group benefits derived from using online platforms; but before we can do that, we must first familiarize ourselves with what the true purpose of a focus group is.

What is a traditional focus group?

Simply put, a traditional focus group involves a small (usually fewer than 12) group of individuals who are brought together to provide feedback on a specific product or service.

Moderators working on behalf of the company ask questions and guide discussions while the focus group does their thing. Customers share their wants, needs, values, and experiences as they pertain to the chosen topic. These sessions often last for an hour or more.

Focus group testing is often conducted on-site at a brick and mortar location - often the company’s office, or a rented testing facility. 

What is the purpose of traditional focus group testing?

What traditional focus group testing aims to accomplish is gaining new insight into the company. Managers often tend to become blind to their company’s mistakes over time; bringing customers into the mix and listening to what they have to say can make all the difference.

With an informed moderator present - both to represent the company and guide the discussion - these focus groups can often yield surprising and advantageous results. Each customer brings a unique set of values and experiences into the mix, which allows designers on the corporate level to better connect to the needs of their clients.

Types and size of traditional focus groups

There are several different ways moderators can choose to conduct their focus group discussions.

  • Two-Way 

Two groups of individuals share a space and take turns answering questions posed by a moderator. Each group is given time to listen to and consider the other group’s insights before sharing their own; this creates a more active and involved discussion.

  • Dual-Moderator

Two moderators split the tasks traditionally managed by one moderator; one manages the time, and facilitates cohesion among the group - the other moderator ensures all questions and topics of discussion are covered. These sessions alleviate some of the stress placed on both group and moderator, and often yield more productive results.

  • Dueling-Moderator

In this set-up, two moderators present arguments to one another - exposing audiences to new viewpoints. 

  • Respondent-Moderator

This focus group styling places one participant as the role of moderator. Placing a regular customer in the place of the moderator changes the dynamic of the group; often, this style promotes the participants to be more invested in the proceedings. 

  • Mini Focus Group

These focus groups are often composed of only four or five individuals - nearly half the size of a traditional focus group. These types of groups allow for customers to give more intimate and nuanced answers.

Advantages of traditional focus group testing

  • Conducting focus group testing in an in-person setting often creates a more intimate and welcoming discussion. When there are a smaller number of participants being included in the discussion, each panelist is made to feel like their experiences have more weight. 
  • Traditional focus group testing allows customers to get hands-on experience with the product or service being scrutinized.
  • In-person focus groups give moderators greater control over the flow of the discussion, and can better keep panelists on track. 

Disadvantages of traditional focus groups

  • These types of in-person meetings are very prone to group-think bias; cases where poor decisions are made by a group due to the human tendency to support (especially faulty) group consensus. 
  • Traditional focus groups require participants to give up hours of their time in exchange for little compensation. Factoring in a commute, most focus group participants can expect to give up at least half a day in order to commit to your testing. This can turn many away from wanting to take your deal.
  • In-person focus groups are costly, as they require a space to conduct testing in as well as compensation (and snacks) for the participants.
  • In a post Covid-19 world, many people are reluctant to commit to the same kind of unnecessary face-to-face meetings like they used to. The pandemic has left many unable or unwilling to attend anything more personal than a video conference. 

What is an online focus group?

Online focus group testing is the 21st century solution for gathering valuable feedback from customers.

Online market research communities are a type of qualitative research technique that seeks to gain insights from a large number of panelists. These online communities are most often reached through digital surveys. Here, customers from all over the world can share their thoughts, values, and opinions about any topic. 

What is the purpose of an online focus group?

Much like traditional focus groups, these types of focus groups aim to share new perspectives about a company’s products and services.

One immediate difference between online & traditional focus testing are the audiences you have access to. Traditional focus groups are relegated to sampling directly from the local population; namely, whoever is willing to commute out to the testing site. With online testing, researchers can sample audiences from across the globe - tapping into any market they would like.

Types and size of online focus groups

Online focus groups are extremely flexible tools. Moderators can design surveys and sample audiences to fit nearly any research need. 

There are two broad categories of online focus groups. They are differentiated by the amount of time it takes researchers to interact with their participants, or access their survey results.

  • Real-time feedback focus groups

These online groups provide feedback to moderators instantaneously. These focus groups happen at predetermined times; oftentimes, right when a survey or questionnaire is submitted. These types of focus groups range in size from 25 to 1,000+. The tests themselves are conducted with digital testing tools, software, and research platforms - like Helpfull.

The audiences that make up a real-time feedback group are often curated to the moderator’s specific needs. Online databases make it easy to collect and store demographic information for panelists; this allows researchers to narrow their audiences down to the exact kind of person they need to reach.

One example of a real-time feedback focus test is when a business looks to gather feedback about their latest app update. They submit a survey to their users, which they then use to gather feedback about the customer’s thoughts and experiences with the recent app changes.

  • Asynchronous or forum online focus groups

Asynchronous online focus groups deliver feedback in the form of comments & insights over a longer period of time. In these situations, feedback is monitored and tracked by online moderators and community leaders. 

Often utilized by brands to promote engagement with their audiences, these types of tests can be run for a set period of time - or even indefinitely. Panelists interact with one another or the brand through message boards and interactive activities.

One example of forum-style focus group testing is when an online retailer launches a new product line and recruits customers to share their feedback. Through online message boards, digital storefronts can get new insights on their product launches, prices, and aesthetics. With the help of their online community, brands can develop  their ideas far into the long-term - using the steady, drip-feed of feedback they receive all the while. 

Conducting focus group testing online

The first step to conducting your own online focus group is to pick your tools. Every online focus group test will require - at the very least - a digital platform to test on.

Most digital platforms specialize in one form of digital focus group testing: real-time feedback generation, or asynchronous forum-style testing.

Once you’ve got your ideal platform at the ready, the next step will be to sample your audiences. Choosing the right audience for your test can make or break your results. Deciding if you want to sample a general audience or specific target demographics depends on what market you seek to reach with your survey.

Nearly all of the digital focus group testing software on the market today have pre-designed templates to utilize. For new users and seasoned survey veterans alike, using these templates are often the quickest way to get started on your testing. 

Advantages of online focus group testing

  • Online focus groups can be accessed by anyone across the world - so long as they have an internet connection. This allows marketers to receive feedback from an exponentially more expansive selection of customers than traditional testing methods would allow.
  • Virtual focus groups are far more affordable than traditional focus testing.
  • Leaving comments on online forums makes it easier for moderators to manage and view the feedback they receive from panelists.
  • The digital nature of online focus group testing allows marketers to better segment and divvy up their audiences - letting them test a more diverse and broad swath of the population.

Disadvantages of online focus group testing

  • This type of testing innate requires the use of technology - technology some panelists may not have ready access to.
  • Technological issues and bugs may impede a moderator’s access to their panelists.
  • Unless there is a video-call element to the digital focus group, moderators miss out on the facial cues and body expression face-to-face interactions usually provide.

Which is better: traditional focus groups or online focus groups?

Focus group testing is one of the most effective ways that businesses gather valuable feedback from their customers. Both traditional focus groups and online focus groups come with their own advantages and disadvantages; there are situations in which one form of testing outshines the other.

Ultimately, what determines the effectiveness of a focus group is three-fold: the problem or topic being discussed, the audiences being tested, and the involvement of the moderator. Identifying what your company seeks to gain from focus group testing will allow you to choose the type of testing that will suit you best.

When in doubt, utilizing multiple types of focus group tests can generate surprising insights into your product or service.

Helpfull Surveys - Premiere Focus Testing Software

Helpfull is a living, growing platform built around the core principles of accessibility and usability. A community of thousands are ready and waiting to test your products; giving you the feedback you need to turn your project into a resounding success. 

An intuitive user-interface, coupled with the ability to gather hundreds of consumer responses in just minutes, are just a few of the features that make Helpfull the ultimate tool for any artist, designer, marketer, or inquisitive spirit.

Get the feedback you need to succeed - sign up with Helpfull today, and get surveying within minutes!

Works Cited

“Focus Group - Learn About Different Types of Focus Groups.” Corporate Finance Institute, 22 June 2020, corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/other/focus-group/.

“What Is an Online Focus Group? An in-Depth Guide Including Examples, Types, and Steps with Advantages.” QuestionPro, 4 May 2021, www.questionpro.com/blog/online-focus-group/.

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