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What Is an Online Focus Group?

By Terry Masters
Updated May 17, 2024
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An online focus group is a meeting in a virtual space for the purpose of conducting research. It uses the connectivity of the Internet as a substitute for proximity. Targeted groups of people are instructed to access a certain web-based program or common space to interact with moderators and each other. The meeting takes place in real time, just as if the people involved were all meeting in person. Depending on the type of interface used, however, the meeting can be entirely text-based or can utilize video conferencing capabilities.

The widespread use of the Internet and various types of chat and conferencing software has revolutionized interactions between businesses and consumers. Historically, focus groups operated under certain constraints. The pool of participants was often regionally limited because of the expense of bringing in people from out of town. Finding participants that could meet more obscure criteria was often difficult. There was no easy way to conduct the same research in multiple markets without paying consultants or staff members to travel.

Internet usage enabled the online focus group. Marketers now have a worldwide pool of participants to choose from, each with the same opportunity cost regardless of their location. Thus, setting up an online focus group is relatively easy. Typically, potential group participants are screened during a survey or through a phone interview. Group selections are then made based on a variety of factors that can be particular to the research project, including demographics, preferences and location.

Marketers will use different types of software to operate online focus groups. Perhaps the easiest is the use of a chat room program to allow the entire group to interact in the same space. The marketer serves as the group moderator, posing questions about participants' perceptions, beliefs and attitudes and often soliciting feedback on new products. Chat rooms are text-based, however, so the interaction removes the nuances of facial expressions and body language from the equation. If the marketer believes that such observations are important to his or her research, he or she has the option of adding video capability to the chat so that the participants can be seen while they are talking.

Some major corporations have taken the online focus group a step further. Instead of engaging a group of participants once, for a particular study or to answer questions about a particular product, the corporation hires a marketing firm to manage an online focus group community. The marketer selects a certain constituency to participate, uses community-building software to create an interactive space and engages with the group over a long period of time on various issues that are of interest to the corporation. In this way, the corporation has a standing focus group that provides feedback whenever input is needed.

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Discussion Comments

By myharley — On May 28, 2011

I have done several online paid surveys, but have been interested in getting involved in focus groups. I get pretty bored doing a lot of surveys, and a focus group sounds much more interesting. I would enjoy the interaction with other people and hearing what their opinions are about something. Completing surveys doesn't earn you much money either. I'm sure if you did a ton of them every day, you might think it was worth your time, but it doesn't add up very fast.

The other thing with survey companies is many of them just want to pay you in bonus points and not cash. The people I know who have done focus groups, always get paid in cash.

By bagley79 — On May 27, 2011

Being involved in a long term focus group would be very interesting. Anytime I have been asked to participate in a paid focus group, it has just been a one time deal. It is nice for some extra money, and is also rewarding to think that you have been some kind of help to a company or organization that is looking for public opinion on their product or service.

By julies — On May 26, 2011

Not only are online focus groups interesting, but they can also be a great way to make some extra money. I have participated in both local and online focus groups. The biggest advantage to participating in a paid online focus group is the convenience of being able to participate from your own home.

The structure is pretty much the same, but you just don't have the face to face interaction. When I have been involved in local focus groups, they are watching everything you say and do. They will tell you this up front, but companies would not have that advantage if they just used online focus groups for their information.

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