In-Person or Online Qualitative: Selecting the Right Tool for The Job

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For decades, qualitative research was dominated by a staple of any brand wanting to understand their customers’ views and preferences: the in-person focus group.  While it is true that online qualitative had started to make inroads many years before COVID, the status quo was dramatically challenged during the pandemic, when marketers needed to replicate in-person data collection while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

When I started working with Nucleus Marketing Lab in the summer of 2020, our team had already strategized and adapted to the virtual focus group format through the use of Zoom, TEAMS and other video conferencing platforms.  The only lingering wrinkle that remained was what appeared—and still appears—to be a virtual meeting catch phrase, “Don’t forget to unmute!”

When it comes to conducting exercises that require more than question and answer—brainstorming, written exercises, sketching out concepts, building collages, breaking into smaller groups—there is simply no replacement for in-person focus groups.  An integral part of qualitative project scoping is determining the type of activities needed to get deeper into the mind of a client’s target market.  Some activities simply aren’t suited for virtual formats.

For example, just recently we’ve done in-person qualitative for a brand where we needed participants to react to a mock shelf display and handle real packaging samples.  Another time, the audience was one where we felt use of Zoom would be rather foreign and the technology challenges would be formidable.  Still another time, we were doing a card sorting exercise.  We wanted and needed the participants to spread cards out on a table and tape things to the wall.  That would have been challenging online.

In this way, our belief is that there is room for both in-person and virtual formats based on the task at hand.

Virtual focus groups can be potentially more cost-effective, have greater geographic reach and have better attendance rates.  We’ve also heard great feedback from participants who are not able to commute to a focus group due to commitments in the home or transportation challenges.  Finally, another upside is that one alpha respondent trying to dominate can be mitigated in an online setting.  However, as noted above, virtual focus groups also inherently rely entirely on technology, not only that of the moderator and client, but four to ten participant webcams, computers, and Wi-Fi signals, which can be a significant challenge.

So, how can virtual focus groups become an effective tool in your brand’s toolbox?  First, work with an experienced research partner (shameless Nucleus plug) who understands the virtual landscape and develops the discussion guide to optimize the unique functions of video conferencing platforms (e.g., chat, hand-raising, polls).  Second, request participant “tech checks” which include checking Wi-Fi signals, video and audio clarity, and comfort level with the aforementioned conferencing functions; this will save precious time in a focus group.  On a related note, make sure respondents do the advance “tech check” with the same device they plan to use during the session.  Finally, during the meeting, allow time for the moderator to set the ground rules and create a warm and accepting environment that encourages rich and insightful discussion.

While some may consider virtual focus groups to be an evolution in primary research, indicating progress and development, we view virtual groups not as a replacement but simply as another valuable tool for smart brands to understand their customers.  Next time you’re contemplating an insights need, let us know.  We’re glad to help you assess the situation and select the right tool to get the job done.

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