Is the focus group dead?

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Are online communities the future of qualitative research?

Post by Kajel Patel, Associate Insight Director, and Evros Agamemnonos, Insight Manager

It’s quite ironic that we are writing about whether online communities are the future of qualitative research on a blog.  So are they?

Well, if you listen hard enough you can hear hundreds of focus group recruiters screaming ‘NOOOOO’ as they reach for the phone, attempting to find respondents to attend an 8pm evening group for £40 – and it is for the precise reasons of cost, logistics and time constraints that online communities are growing in popularity within the research community (or at least some of the reasons, anyway).

Let’s go back a bit to a simpler time.  Traditional market research was born in the focus group.  A moderator would probe the views and opinions of participants face-to-face, but over the decades new methodologies have entered the researcher’s handbook.

Telephone research entered the fold in the 1970s as the UK consumer got connected.  The late 1990s saw the arrival of online surveys, spawning the growth of online panels during the noughties. And now as we have entered a new era, online communities are becoming increasingly popular.

Focus-groups-OMD

The growth in online communities and social networks make the blogosphere an increasingly important and effective space for brands to engage and interact with their customers.  According to comScore, 25.6 million unique users visited a blog site last month.  Sites like blogger.com and wordpress.com are liberating those who have something to say.

According to nVision, 29% of 16-34 year olds now go online on a monthly basis to write or contribute towards a blog.

“How often do you use the internet to…write blogs”

Source: nVision 2011 (Base: 2,045 UK online respondents aged 16+)

With a third of under-35s visiting blogs on a monthly basis, and a large proportion contributing towards them, virtual communities have become a natural part of many people’s online repertoire, and it should come as no surprise to us that online research communities are subsequently growing in popularity.

Our OMD Insight team has already utilised this powerful tool for various clients, including recently setting up a short term community of women, aiming to engage them in an on-going discussion around make up and media habits. The insights gleaned were instantaneous, thought provoking and helped bring the wider research project to life.

Unlike traditional focus groups, online research communities are often designed to be used as a continuous form of customer engagement, and their benefits can thus be broad ranging:

1. Getting customers involved in the business

Avid customers are likely to have extensive experience of the brand and its products.  They are therefore one of the most useful untapped resources to test a new idea, concept or campaign. An online research community can therefore act as a customer voice and empower internal teams with customer input and insight. If you have a question, however small it may seem, you can gain feedback from your online research community, often overnight, and be able to represent the customer inside your business.

2. Innovate with your customers

There is a lot to be said about the power of co-creation and innovating with your customers.

An online research community can be a great way of both generating new ideas organically, and of working with your customers on innovation and co-creation. The format means that a brand can have on-going discussions with key consumers and involve them throughout the innovation process, rather than just testing ideas at specific, pre-determined stages.

Having internal experts and customers working together can also create powerful synergies, and in some cases, can generate new product or concept ideas that brand managers may not have otherwise considered.

3. Learn the language your customers use

Too many brands and products are hindered by the internal language that is used to describe it. We often find that customers use a very different vocabulary to the one that brands use. An online research community can help analyse and draw insight from the language people use and apply to brands and the way they communicate with consumers.

4. Find answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask

By building a community and using it for research and insight, a brand can generate organic discussions and debates alongside any marketing activity they run.

A well-managed online community will see participants generating ideas and debates with each other. Moreover, using the community for research purposes means that the brand will be able to benefit from the questions and answers that panellists provide each other.

This enables them to know the answer to things that are important to customers, but that we may never have thought to ask through traditional research methods.

So are focus groups dead?

As the potential of online research communities is slowly being recognised, researchers are increasingly finding themselves questioning the role of traditional focus groups.  Are they still effective at a time where technology has facilitated cheaper, more convenient platforms to engage with customers?

The answer is yes, traditional focus groups still have a role to play; albeit a smaller one.  We should not forget that although younger generations are embracing online platforms, not all demographics are doing so at the same speed. There are many brands that target older, more niche customer segments, for which an online community would simply not be suitable.

Moreover, there is still a lot to be said for face-to-face communication in research; in reading people’s body language and eye movements – both of which can provide telling implicit reactions that might otherwise be missed. For all its merits, this remains a distinct shortcoming of the online research community.

Ultimately, the decision on which methodology is appropriate must be made in the context of the brief and the research being undertaken. There are no winners and losers…and certainly no resurrections from the dead!

If you’d like to find out more about qualitative research groups and communities, please do get in touch via our ‘Contact Us’ form: http://www.omdukblog.com/contact/ .

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