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.