Online focus groups have been a cornerstone of PSB Insights’ research toolkit for more than a decade but have risen to prominence across the research industry in recent years as an essential approach to uncovering valuable insights into consumer behavior and preferences. At PSB Insights, we skillfully harness the power of online focus groups, capitalizing on their numerous benefits for both clients and participants. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of online focus groups, tackle their challenges, and illustrate how they complement other data collection methods, such as quantitative surveys.
Quality Insights with Maximum Flexibility
Online focus groups are expanding the possibilities for data collection and providing researchers with actionable insights rooted in a rigorous methodology. Here’s how:
- Real-time data collection: Online focus groups enable researchers to collect data in real time, allowing clients to access findings more quickly than with traditional methods. This rapid access to results is invaluable when making critical business decisions or reacting to market trends.
- Greater flexibility: Online focus groups can be conducted at any time and from anywhere, making it easier for clients to schedule sessions around their busy lives. This flexibility also extends to participants, who can join discussions from the comfort of their own homes or offices.
- Faster fielding time: Online focus groups can often be fielded on a much faster timeline than in-person groups, reducing the overall duration of the research project and accelerating the delivery of insights. This efficiency is particularly beneficial when dealing with time-sensitive topics or rapidly evolving market conditions.
- More candid responses: The virtual setting can provide a sense of anonymity, allowing participants to feel more comfortable sharing their honest opinions and experiences from a private space in their home without the pressure of face-to-face interactions.
For example, when PSB Insights facilitated nine online focus groups for Pew Research Center’s study on Black Americans’ experiences with news, we saw firsthand the advantages of a virtual approach. The real-time data collection allowed researchers to gather insights from a variety of Black Americans across the U.S., enabling them to quickly develop a quantitative questionnaire rooted in genuine experiences. The focus group results also provided valuable context for the quantitative findings in the study, as evidenced by the rich quotes throughout Pew Research Center’s report.
Enhancing Participant Diversity and Perspectives
A diverse participant pool is essential for well-rounded research, and online focus groups make it easier than ever to tap into varied perspectives. Here’s how:
- Geographic diversity: No longer limited by physical location, online focus groups enable researchers to connect with participants from different regions, uncovering regional differences in consumer behavior and preferences. Online focus groups also make it easier for individuals from rural and suburban areas, who might not live near urban focus group facilities, to participate in the research.
- Accessibility and inclusivity: Technology and accommodations for participants with disabilities foster an inclusive environment where everyone can participate.
- Time-saving convenience: Online focus groups often require less time commitment compared to in-person sessions, making it more convenient for participants with busy schedules, such as parents.
- Reduced travel expenses: By eliminating the need for participants to travel to a specific location, online focus groups reduce costs and logistical challenges for both researchers and participants.
- Faster translation and transcriptions: With the use of AI technology in virtual focus groups, translation and transcription of sessions can be done quickly and efficiently. This allows for real-time understanding and analysis of discussions, even when participants speak different languages, thus ensuring every voice is heard and understood.
PSB Insights’ collaboration with the Pew Research Center on a groundbreaking study involving 66 online focus groups and 264 participants from 18 different Asian origin groups exemplifies the power of technology in enhancing participant diversity and perspectives. By tapping into various regions across the United States, eliminating travel expenses, and providing time-saving convenience, the virtual format facilitated inclusivity and accessibility. We worked with in-language moderators and simultaneous interpreters to ensure representation of non-English speakers while maintaining real-time insights. This comprehensive approach resulted in a nuanced understanding of identity, economic mobility, representation, and experiences among Asians living in the United States, setting a new standard for capturing diverse perspectives in social science research.
Balancing Methodologies for Comprehensive Understanding
In addition to serving as a standalone research method, online focus groups can also complement other methodologies. For example, they can be used to guide the development of a quantitative survey by identifying key themes and areas of interest or illuminate the results post-survey by providing qualitative insight into the trends or patterns observed in the data.
By leveraging the strengths of both online focus groups, as well as integrating them with other research methodologies, businesses can gain a more comprehensive understanding of their target audiences and make more informed decisions.
A prime example of this balanced approach is the research conducted by PSB Insights in partnership with Sensis on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study aimed to understand the experiences and challenges faced by multicultural Medicaid enrolled and eligible individuals. The research team drew on insights from 10 online focus groups and 42 in-depth interviews to guide the development of an online survey questionnaire completed by 3,000 Medicaid enrolled and eligible participants. This multifaceted methodology allowed for a richer understanding of the unique challenges within the Medicaid community, ultimately informing policy recommendations and driving improvements in health equity, policy, and advocacy.
Similarly, our research for the 2020 Census Integrated Communications Campaign employed a synergistic approach, combining qualitative focus groups, in-depth interviews, and online bulletin boards with quantitative survey results. This iterative process allowed us to paint a comprehensive portrait of the American public’s needs and challenges concerning participation in the 2020 Census.
Addressing Challenges and Maximizing Potential
While online focus groups offer numerous benefits, there are situations where traditional in-person focus groups may be more appropriate. For instance, when dealing with sensitive topics or examining proto-types or materials, in-person focus groups can provide a deeper level of engagement and understanding. At PSB Insights, we proactively address the limitations of online focus groups to maximize the potential of our virtual discussions:
- Limited nonverbal communication: Our experienced moderators are skilled in employing various techniques, such as asking probing questions or encouraging participants to elaborate on their responses, to ensure a deeper understanding of their perspectives despite the lack of face-to-face interaction.
- Potential technical issues: We carefully select reliable platforms, conduct pre-session testing, and have contingency plans in place for any technical issues that may arise during the session. This minimizes disruptions and ensures a smooth experience for both researchers and participants.
- Maintaining engagement: Our moderators utilize various strategies, such as incorporating interactive elements (e.g., polls, chat functions), setting clear expectations, and fostering a positive atmosphere to maintain participant engagement throughout the discussion. Right-sized groups are also key to this. While in-person focus groups work well with eight to ten participants, it’s important to limit online focus groups to four to five participants to account for the additional time it takes for the conversation to flow between speakers. A crowded online group will lead to disengaged participants.
- Ensuring data security: At PSB Insights, we prioritize protecting participants’ privacy and ensuring data security. We choose platforms with robust security features, adhere to strict data protection protocols, and inform participants about the measures taken to safeguard their information.
By proactively addressing these challenges through careful planning and execution, our experienced moderators play a vital role in maintaining engagement and facilitating meaningful discussion among all participants. This approach ensures that our online focus groups deliver valuable insights while overcoming potential obstacles.
Looking Ahead: The Future of Online Focus Groups
Online focus groups offer a flexible, efficient, and accessible means of gathering valuable insights while promoting inclusivity and creating opportunities for diverse participants. As we continue to navigate the ongoing changes in the business landscape, it’s clear that digital solutions like online focus groups will remain essential tools for success.
By continually refining our approach to online focus groups and staying abreast of emerging trends and technologies, we can ensure that this research method remains effective and relevant in meeting the evolving needs of businesses and consumers alike. Prioritizing inclusivity and positive participant experiences will lead to more engaged and insightful discussions, ultimately contributing to the success of online focus groups as a valuable research tool.
For more information, please contact [email protected].
Written by Shawnna Mullenax, PhD
Shawnna is a Vice President with expertise in underrepresented audiences and social science methodologies. Her peer-reviewed research has been published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, Legislative Studies Quarterly, and Duke University Press, and she has an article forthcoming at Journal of Politics.