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Main things to remember when working with focus groups

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Focus group interviews represent an array of techniques and methods that have been used by social scientists for several decades.

Originally termed the “focused interview,” the method was quickly adopted in marketing research as a means of product testing and has become the predominant qualitative method in this field.

A focus group can be described as a research technique that collects data through group interaction on a topic or topics.

The distinguishing feature of focus groups is the explicit use of the group interaction to produce data and insights that might be less accessible without the interaction found in a group.

The focus group is one research technique in which participants are encouraged to interact.

Focus groups can be relatively structured, with specific questions asked of each member, or extremely unstructured, depending on the research purpose.

They can be used as a stand-alone technique, or as an integral part of a more complicated design in which they precede, supplement, or triangulate design from other methods.

For example, focus groups are useful for generating research hypotheses, testing research methods, or interpreting other survey results.

There are four main objectives of focus groups:
1. To generate ideas: to use the focus group as a starting point for product or service ideas, uses, or improvements.

2. To understand consumer vocabulary: using the focus group to stay abreast of the words and phrases consumers use when describing a product so as to improve products or service communication with them.

Such information may help in writing advertising copy or in the preparation of an instruction pamphlet.

This knowledge refines research problem definitions and also helps structure questions for later quantitative research.

3. To reveal consumer needs, motives, perceptions and attitudes on products or services: using the focus group to refresh the marketing team as to what customers feel or think about products or a service.

This application is useful in generating objectives to be addressed by subsequent research.

4. To understand findings from quantitative studies: using focus groups for better comprehension of data gathered from other surveys.

Sometimes a focus group succeeds in uncovering why the findings came out in a particular way.

Focus group research is becoming more widespread worldwide. In fact, differences among the world’s populations necessitate that the research be tailored to the specific culture and people.

The focus group approach will remain a popular and influential marketing research technique, because focus groups are easy to interpret; are reasonable in cost terms when compared with large-scale quantitative surveys involving a thousand or more respondents; are adaptable to managers’ concerns; and capable of yielding immediate results.

They are a unique research method because they permit marketing managers to see and hear the market.

Framework for focus groups
All research methodologies, including focus groups, benefit from a rigorous framework and planning. The following sections present some useful steps and guidelines in the planning process.

Step 1: Define the problem
Quality is affected when the purpose of a focus group is not clear. So the first step in preparing for a focus group is to gain a thorough understanding of the problem or issue and to express it as a concise question or topic for discussion.

Step 2: Establish the groups and plan for the sessions
This stage requires the researcher to determine the number of groups, the number of participants in each group, the length and timing of each session, and finally the recruiting of participants.

2.1 Determine the number of groups
Selection for focus groups is deliberate rather than being a random selection. Participants are selected (screened) for their suitability and ability to provide insights that are relevant to the particular problem.

The number of focus groups to be conducted depends on the nature of the issue being investigated, the number of distinct market segments, and the number of ideas generated by each successive group.

A secondary factor may be time and cost, but this should not be a primary concern for restricting the number of groups.

A general guideline is to continue conducting focus groups until little additional information is gained and the moderator can predict what is going to be said in the next group. This occurs usually after three to four groups.

2.2  Set the size of a focus group
There is no consensus in the literature as to the number of participants in a focus group. According to industry wisdom, the optimal size is six to ten people.

A small group (fewer than eight participants) is not likely to generate the necessary energy and group dynamics.

With fewer participants, it is common that one or two of the participants do most of the talking despite the moderator’s efforts.

Often, a small group will result in awkward silences and force the moderator to take too active a role in the discussion.

Similarly, a group with more than twelve will ordinarily prove too large to be conducive to a natural discussion.

As a focus group becomes larger in size it tends to become fragmented. Participants may become frustrated by the inherent digressions and side comments.

Irrelevant small talk may break out among two or three participants while another is talking.

This situation places the moderator in the role of disciplinarian who has to maintain order rather than focusing the discussion on the issues.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to predict the exact number of people that will attend the focus group interview.

Ten may agree to participate and only six may show up or fourteen are invited, in the hope that eight will show up, and all fourteen will arrive.

Of course, if this occurs, the researcher faces a judgment as to whether or not to send some home.

In the worst case, a researcher may run into a situation in which no one attends, despite promises to the contrary.

There is no guaranteed method that will ensure a successful participation ratio. Incentives (which will be discussed later) are helpful, but definitely not a foolproof way of gaining acceptance.

So although six to ten is the ideal size range, it is not uncommon to have bigger or smaller groups.

Smaller groups may also be more productive. With twelve panelists, for example, after subtracting the time it takes to warm up (usually about three minutes) and the time for the moderator’s questions and probes, the average member of a ninety-minute focus group has three minutes of talking time.

The experience becomes more like a group survey than an exploration of experiences, feelings, and beliefs. It is also a very expensive form of survey, so cutting the group size makes sense.

2.3  Who should be selected?
It is generally believed that the best focus groups are those in which the participants share characteristics.

This requirement is sometimes automatically satisfied by the researcher’s need to have particular types of people in the focus group.

A heterogeneous group will enable broad and general discussion and a wide variety of opinions to be expressed without prejudice or pre- judgment.

Most focus group research, however, will seek some element of homogeneity, so that opinions reflect some element of commonality among participants.

This can be as simple as commonality of age group, lifestyle, consumption patterns, expertise or experience.

The need for similar demographic or other relevant characteristics in group members is accentuated by the fact that the participants are strangers, and many people feel intimidated or at least hesitant to voice their opinions among strangers.

Participants typically feel more comfortable once they realize they have something in common, such as their age, job situations, family composition (they may all have preschool children), purchase experiences (they may all have bought a new car in the past year), or even leisure pursuits (they may all play tennis).

Furthermore, by conducting a homogeneous group, the researcher is assured that differences in these variables will be less likely to confuse the issue being discussed.

Another approach to selection is to allow focus groups to be self-selected so that members know each other and will talk openly, for example a group of managers in the same distribution channel who communicate regularly and who perhaps have become friends.

Whilst focus group participants may be experts in a field, their deliberations are about issues outside their immediate sphere of responsibility and influence.

2.4 How to recruit participants
The selection of participants is determined by the purpose of the focus group. For instance, if the purpose is to generate ideas on product packaging, the participants must be consumers who have used the brand.

It is necessary to contact prospective participants by telephone initially to vet them, and then to obtain their co-operation in the focus group.

2.5 selecting the venue
The venue should be neutral and one in which participants feel comfortable and at ease. Moreover, it should be easy to get to.

For a focus group to be successful, the room is just as important as the venue. The environment should be free of distractions and as relaxed as possible to encourage informal off-the-cuff discussion.

The most common option is a quiet room with a circular or round conference table, which allows participants to lean forward and be less self-conscious about their bodies. Others prefer a living-room atmosphere with coffee tables and easy chair.

Aside from a circular seating arrangement where participants can all see one another, the second requirement is to select a meeting place quiet enough to permit an intelligible audio- or videotaping of the sessions.

The ideal setting is a focus group facility. These are rooms designed for focus groups at a marketing research company.

The focus group room contains a large table and comfortable chairs, a relaxed atmosphere, and a one-way mirror so clients can view the interviews. Ample space for video and audio equipment should be provided.

Microphones may be built into the walls or ceiling, or set in the centre of the table, and videotape equipment often resides behind a one-way mirror. One-way mirrors also allow clients to observe the focus group as it takes place.

2.6 The timing of sessions
The time of day that a focus group is held can affect the extent to which participation is achieved.

For example, early evening (5.30 to 7.00 p.m.) is often the most appropriate time to conduct sessions.

The primary justification for this timing is that holding the sessions after normal business hours minimizes disruption to the daily routines, so removing a possible obstacle to attendance.

2.7 Selecting moderators
The quality of focus group research depends on the abilities of the moderator/ facilitator/catalyst because that person is the instrument in the focus group interview.

Here, we emphasize the use of the researcher as the moderator, and also discuss the role of the assistant moderator.

A focus group moderator conducts the session and guides the flow of discussion on topics suggested by the client.

The moderator must strive for a delicate balance between stimulating natural discussions among all of the group members while ensuring that the focus does not stray too far from the topic.

A good moderator must have excellent obser ation, interpersonal, and communication skills to recognize and overcome threats to a productive group discussion.

He or she must be prepared, experienced, and armed with a detailed list of topics to be discussed.

It is also helpful if the moderator can eliminate any preconceptions on the topic from his or her mind.

Finally, the moderator should be empathetic or sensitive to the participants’ situations and comments.

The focus group’s success depends on the participants’ involvement in the discussion and in their understanding of what is being asked of them.

Productive involvement is largely a result of the moderator’s effectiveness, which in turn is dependent on understanding the purpose and objectives of the interview.

Unless the moderator understands what information the researcher is interested in and why (the managerial agenda), she or he will not be able to phrase questions effectively.

It is good policy to have the moderator contribute to the development of the project’s goals so as to guide the discussion topics, aiding in the formation of the topics (questions), and so be better prepared to conduct the group.

It is important when formulating questions that they be in a logical sequence and that the moderator follow this sequence as much as possible. With an incompetent moderator, the focus group can become a waste of time and money.

The moderator’s introductory remarks are important because they set the tone of the session.

All subsequent questions should be prefaced with a clear explanation of how the participants should respond.

For instance, how they really feel, not how they think they should feel. This allows the moderator to establish a rapport with participants and to lay the groundwork for the interview’s structure.

It is recommended having an assistant moderator if one can be found. Although the subject is not often addressed in the literature, the advantages of having an assistant moderator are numerous.

Primarily an assistant moderator prevents the moderator from being distracted by housekeeping duties and environmental issues, so enabling total concentration on the discussion.

For instance, the assistant moderator can take care of the refreshments, control the audio equipment, and make notes about the proceedings and participants’ reactions, which are helpful in the post-meeting analysis of each session.

The following are critical moderating skills:
? Ability to establish rapport quickly by listening carefully, demonstrating a genuine interest in each participant’s views, dressing like the participants, and avoiding the use of jargon or sophisticated terminology that may turn off the group.

? Flexibility, observed by implementing the interview agenda in a way the group finds comfortable.

Slavish adherence to an agenda means the discussion loses spontaneity and degenerates into a question-and-answer session.

? Ability to sense when a topic has been exhausted or is becoming threatening, and to know which topic to introduce to maintain a smooth flow in the discussion.

? Ability to control group influences to avoid having a dominant individual or subgroup that might suppress the total contribution.

Step 3: Conducting discussions
Common techniques for conducting successful focus group interviews include the chain reaction, devil’s advocate, and false termination.

In the chain reaction technique, the moderator builds a cumulative effect by encouraging each member of the focus group to comment on an idea suggested by someone else in the group, by adding to or expanding on it.

When playing devil’s advocate, the moderator expresses extreme viewpoints; this usually provokes reactions from group members and keeps the discussion moving forward in a lively manner.

In false termination, the moderator falsely concludes a focus group interview, thanks group members for participating, and inquires whether there are any final comments.

These “final comments” frequently lead to new discussion avenues and often result in the most useful data obtained.

3.1 The level of moderator involvement
The level of the moderator’s involvement is governed by the objectives of the research and the structure of the groups.

The focus group researcher is best considered not as an interviewer but as a catalyst for discussion.

The true ability of a focus group researcher is in being able to introduce a topic in such a way that participants are stimulated to respond.

A further skill is in managing the balance of opinions. Every focus group will have a variety of personality types, some will be extrovert or dominant and perhaps jump in with opinions frequently and early, while others will be introvert or be inclined to think privately about an issue and may or may not offer their opinions.

Any new focus group researchers must be acutely aware of their role and function. Experiential learning will enable a researcher to stabilize discussion to achieve an adequate balance of participants’ opinions.

Experiential knowledge will also ensure that the researcher does not dominate the focus group through too much involvement and direction.

The moderator can control the group dynamics so that the desired high level of involvement is planned and achieved.

This control prevents one person from dominating the conversation, as well as allowing stimulation of quiet respondents to participate.

Furthermore, unproductive discussion can be carefully interrupted without imposing the moderator’s personal biases or putting words in respondents’ mouths.

In brief, the moderator needs to strike a balance between having too much structure, which prevents the participants’ own ideas surfacing, and not enough structure, allowing some participants to dominate and some research issues or topics to be ignored.

3.2 The number of topics in a session
The number of topics covered determines the level of moderator involvement, and contributes towards the structure of the interview.

But there appears to be little consensus as to what constitutes a structured group. In addition, it is not necessary to adhere rigidly to the order of topics and the moderator may adjust the sequence according to the flow of the discussion.

As well as having the freedom to rearrange the order of topics, the moderator needs to be involved, to ensure that all topics and surrounding issues are discussed.

This prevents problems that may occur with low levels of moderator involvement, such as failure to discuss some topics, and difficulties in analyzing disorganized data.

Deciding on the number of topics to be addressed in a session is often difficult, as one group may react enthusiastically to a topic while another group may be uninterested, affecting the length of the session.

Another approach is to develop a rolling interview guide, where the list of topics is revised for the next group, based on the outcome of the previous group.

This method may result in difficulties when trying to make comparisons between groups. But this difficulty may be outweighed by the progression of in-depth understanding.

3.3 Questions or topics for discussion
Quality data is directly related to quality topics, which typically follow a prescribed format so that the maximum amount of useful information can be gained.

Consequently, careful forethought is needed to be given to the wording of the topics in the sessions, to ensure that respondents are not placed in embarrassing or defensive situations.

Quality topics for focus groups are those that are open-ended, thereby providing a stimulus to the participant. Start with some general issues and then funnel in to more specific ones.

If the researcher decides to use questions, these should begin with words such as what, which and how.

Why questions must be used cautiously in recognition that respondents often rationalize answers when asked “why” or may become defensive.

Therefore, why issues are best addressed as discussion points, coupled with phrases such as, “could you explain that a little more” and similar probes.

This approach indicates to the respondents that the moderator is interested not only in facilitating the discussion, but also in the complexity of their answers.

3.4 Test the moderators’ guide
The focus group interview guide or protocol should be tested to eliminate obvious problems.

This allows the nature and wording of the interview topics to be evaluated to ensure that the wording of questions is appropriate, to ascertain whether the right topics have been selected and addressed properly.

Step 4: Analyzing the information
Analysis of the information is a challenging part of focus group research. Two important factors must be remembered.

First, the researcher must translate the qualitative statements of participants into categories and then report the degree of consensus apparent in the focus groups.

Second, the demographic and buyer behaviour characteristics of participants should be judged against the target market profile to assess to what degree the groups represent the target market.

The focus group report reflects the qualitative aspect of this research method. It lists all themes that have become apparent, and it notes any diversity of opinions or thoughts expressed by the participants.

It will also have numerous verbatim excerpts provided as evidence. In fact, some reports include complete transcripts of the group discussion.

This information is then used for further research or even for more focus groups. If the information is used for subsequent focus groups, the client uses the first group as a learning experience, making any adjustments to the discussion topics as needed to improve the research objectives.

Although focus groups may be the only type of research to tackle a marketing problem or question, they are also used as a beginning point for quantitative research efforts.

That is, a focus group phase may be used to gain a feel for a specific survey that will ultimately generate standardized information from a representative sample.

Several features of group interactions must be kept in mind during the analysis. An evaluation of a new concept by a group tends to be conservative; that is, it favours ideas that are easy to explain and not necessarily very new.

There are further problems with the order of presentation when several concepts, products, or advertisements are being evaluated.

If group participants have been highly critical of one thing, they may compensate by being uncritical of the next.

4.1 Types of focus groups
Focus groups can be classified into three types:

? Exploratory focus groups are commonly used early in the market research process to help define a problem precisely. Exploratory groups can also be used to generate hypotheses for testing or concepts for future research.

? Clinical focus groups involve qualitative research in its most scientific form. The research is conducted as a scientific endeavour, based on the premise that a person’s true motivations and feelings are subconscious in nature.

The moderator probes under the level of the consumer’s consciousness. Obviously, clinical groups require a moderator with expertise in psychology and sociology.

Their popularity is limited because of the difficulty of validating findings from clinical groups and because unskilled operators sometimes attempt to conduct clinical groups.

The reality in the kitchen or supermarket differs drastically from that in most corporate offices.

? Experiencing focus groups allow the researcher to experience the emotional framework in which the product is being used, and explores the “experience” of a consumer.

An emerging trend is the two-way focus group. This allows one target group to listen to and learn from a related group.

In one application, physicians viewed a focus group of arthritis patients discussing the treatment they desired.

A focus group of these physicians was then held to determine their reactions. The cost of this option, of course, is high. Some research firms are planning an international network of focus facilities. Thus, global focus groups will be possible.

Role of the observer(s)
Backroom observers have a different perspective from the moderator – they can listen in a way that the moderator cannot, since the moderator is often concentrating on a specific issue being discussed.

The client’s representatives (e.g. marketing people) may function as observers, to benefit from “experiencing” the consumer.

Marketing people are often isolated, making assumptions about their users. Seeing and hearing consumers acts as a reality check.

Sitting behind a mirror or in front of a video screen and observing focus groups might sound simple, clients should be quiet, and open-mindedly listen to and look at respondents.

However, even if they do this, it may be difficult to sort out all the fast-flying comments. The clients’ presence has the advantage of being able to indirectly or discretely intervene in a discussion: either the client can communicate with the moderator through a covert earphone, or the setup of the focus group meeting may include one or more short breaks.

These breaks are then used for a brief conference between client and moderator where the client can ask the moderator to raise follow-up questions or even new topics.

With the growing popularity of focus group research, there is increased pressure for organizations using the technique to get the most possible out of each session.

One overlooked area is the dynamics of the backroom, and what each of the people attending a focus group should do to ensure they get the maximum out of each session.

The following suggestions will enable the backroom observer to get more information from each session.

First, the backroom observer should be totally familiar with the discussion guide before the groups begin.

This will provide the opportunity to concentrate on the discussion rather than checking the discussion guide to figure out whether the moderator will be covering some topic of interest later in the session.

Second, the observer should decide how to communicate with the moderator during the session.

There are many ways to do this. For example, many moderators would prefer to come to the backroom during a group, to talk with the observer, as they find this less distracting than receiving notes.

The important thing is that the observer should get a chance to talk with the moderator a few times during the session to share ideas, suggest topics or ways to approach a subject.

Third, before the group starts, the observer could write down the three to five most important things that he would like to learn from the participants.

While the group is in progress, he should make sure that the moderator covers these topics.

Fourth, the observer should focus on the overall picture rather than the comments of the minority during the discussion.

He should not listen only to the one or two people who are the most dominant, but most positive or the most negative about the subject being discussed.

It is easy to gain a false sense of the group due to the aggressive behaviour of one or two participants.

The best way to focus on the inputs from the full group is to write down brief notes on the comments made regarding a particular topic by each participant.

Fifth, the backroom observer should note the body language of the participants. In addition to the person that speaks, the observer could note whether other respondents are nodding agreement or shaking their heads.

Also, focus group members are sometimes saying what is acceptable rather than what they believe. Therefore the observer should listen for the tone of voice (for example, flatness suggests lack of conviction).

Sixth, at the conclusion of each focus group, the observer could write a brief summary, which would indicate the following thoughts:

? The most important things learned during the group session.
? Things that were not learned, but which should be covered in subsequent sessions.
? Suggestions for changes in the discussion guide for future focus group sessions.

Finally, a debriefing is important to ensure that there is good communication between the backroom observer and the moderator on the quality and nature of the content the session generated.

The observer and the moderator should also talk about any changes to the guide that seems warranted.

4.2  Advantages and disadvantages of focus groups
Advantages of focus groups

There are four main advantages to using focus groups as a form of qualitative research.

Generate ideas
Creative and honest insights are often the result of focus groups. Because the respondents are not alone with the interviewer, they feel more at ease and free to express honest opinions rather than the ones they think will please the interviewer.

The effect of “snowballing,” or of one comment triggering another, is also common in focus groups.

A “group creativity” factor is often observed in brainstorming sessions in which one person’s idea stimulates others to generate their own ideas. Focus groups are excellent arenas for this sort of effect.

Allow clients to observe the group
A frequent complaint of marketing research clients is that they have difficulty understanding the complex quantitative techniques used and the statistical results produced.

This lack of understanding invariably leads to an under-utilization of the information provided.

However, because managers can be involved throughout the process by helping with the design of objectives and by observing the focus group, the results make more of an impression on them and are more likely to result in action.

In fact, managers sometimes formulate and begin executing action plans based on their focus group observations even before the data are analyzed and submitted as a formal report.

Generally versatile
There is little to limit the number of topics and issues that can be discussed in a focus group interview.

It is even possible to incorporate the use of other qualitative techniques such as role-playing, so increasing the productivity of the discussion.

Prototypes of products can be demonstrated, concepts can be described, and product performance test results disclosed.

Even advertising copy can be evaluated. Moreover, a focus group is a great forum for unraveling prejudices concerning products and people, such as politicians and actors.

The moderator is allowed to probe deeper into the opinions of participants, something not allowed in highly structured quantitative methods.

A different aspect of this advantage is the flexibility afforded by technology. Some companies regularly conduct focus groups with participants in different places through the use of videoconferences.

Some services can run focus groups across the internet where respondents enter “chat rooms” where certain topics are identified and the participants can submit their comments and reactions in a public forum.

Some online focus groups take place over extended time periods using newsgroup postings.

Work well with special respondents
Focus groups permit the researcher to study respondents that might not respond well under more structured situations.

In some situations, such as those involving hard-to-interview groups such as lawyers or doctors, the format gives them an opportunity to associate with their peers and to compare notes.

Otherwise, they might refuse to take part in a survey. Creative variations of focus groups are successful in studies on children.

The toy maker Lego has for decades run focus groups with children for assessing the target age of their products.

Disadvantages of focus groups
No research technique is flawless, and focus groups are no exception. Some weaknesses are readily apparent, whereas others are less obvious. There are three major weaknesses.

May not represent the population
Focus group results should not be viewed as conclusive research because the participants are not likely to be representative of the population the researcher is studying.

Generally, those who agree to participate in focus groups are more outgoing than the average person.

They are more accessible and probably more compliant. Coupled with the small sample size and homogenous group design, these characteristics render many focus groups unrepresentative of the marketer’s target population.

Furthermore, because it is not possible to ensure that all of the participants who agree to take part will show up, semi-professional respondents are sometimes “on call” for last-minute emergencies.

Consequently, tight controls and a sober evaluation of the “representativeness” of focus groups’ participants are vital.

Interpretation is subjective
Selective use of the data collected by focus groups is a typical problem. Individuals with preconceived notions can almost always find something to support their views, ignoring anything that does not support their opinions.

So focus group analysts are constantly on guard against bias. The subjectivity problem is compounded by involvement of management personnel during the design and conduct of the focus groups.

It is not uncommon for a manager to enter the process with a preconceived notion of what the research will find (or what it should support).

Because focus group research typically allows managers to suggest topics and to add specific questions, as well as to observe the groups in progress, a danger exists that preconceptions will affect their impressions of the findings.

They may even take these impressions and convert them to action before the focus groups are analyzed and the summary report delivered.

A researcher who senses that premature actions are a danger should advise the client to wait until an analyst has interpreted the transcripts, and experienced researchers know that this takes time.

Cost per participant is high
A variety of expensive items contribute to the high cost-per-participant:
? Participant recruitment

? Incentive costs/compensation for participants showing up

? Moderator’s salary for participation in developing the objectives, conducting the focus groups, transcribing the videotapes, and writing and presenting a full report. The moderator often possesses a university degree in psychology.

? Rental of the focus group venue. Sometimes the client wants focus groups carried out in different places. In such situations, the agency may need to rent rooms at a hotel or conference centre.

? Hidden costs. Such costs include time spent by the clients working and traveling that are not necessarily assigned as a direct cost to the focus groups.

4.3  Online focus groups
As the web became popular, offering the chance to discover people’s views remotely, researchers were excited about the possibilities, even for qualitative research.

Not having to get a group of people together in a room potentially offers substantial savings on both costs and time.

Online focus groups are ideal for locating and researching markets that are hard to recruit, touch on sensitive topics, are online based, and geographically dispersed.

For instance, high-level executives may be willing to participate in an online focus group but would never consider expending the amount of time required to attend a traditional focus group.

Online qualitative studies have been conducted to evaluate online and offline advertising, test mock websites, get feedback on existing websites, test and evaluate products, uncover competitive website information, evaluate training programs, explore decision-making, uncover imagery, evaluate concepts, evaluate package visuals, generate ideas, and ascertain customer and employee satisfaction.

The two most common online methodologies are real-time virtual focus group rooms where six to eight respondents participate simultaneously and asynchronous online bulletin boards with, ideally, 12 to 20 respondents lasting over a period of days.

Both allow respondents to participate from their desired location. There are many real-time and asynchronous virtual facilities offering different formats.

The features, capabilities, and sophistication will vary according to which provider is selected.

The use of either methodology requires a re-thinking and re-application of qualitative design and techniques.

Some activities and techniques used with in-person groups work as well (e.g., sentence completion, brain dumps, pantry recall/checks, brand verification) with online groups.

Other activities and techniques need to be adjusted (e.g., brainstorming, imagery exercises), do not work as well (e.g., mind mapping, picture sorts), or do not work at all (e.g., controlled sensory tests, paired assignments).

The design and development activities necessary to conduct online groups are similar to offline groups, specifically: establishment of objectives, screeners, discussion guides, moderation, analysis and report writing.

However, there are crucial differences, reflecting the influence of the technology, that require expertise beyond the skills required for in person groups.

Important characteristics of online focus groups
Recruiting online groups requires specially crafted screeners that are similar in content and depth to those used for traditional focus groups.

Online groups can be initiated by contacting a specialist moderator or company. Most will provide virtual rooms as well as recruitment services.

Respondents can be recruited electronically from established panels, compiled online lists, targeted websites, or client-provided lists. Sometimes telephone recruiting is used to recruit audiences less likely to respond online.

Respondents and observers who are invited to the group receive invitations with login and passwords.

If there are complications or questions during the session, the respondents should be able to contact technical support during the group session.

To avoid the online discussion becoming less focused, the group discussion should last ninety minutes at most.

Ideally, thirty to forty questions are written in advance for input during the discussion. A ninety-minute group session leaves enough time to insert additional spontaneous questions.

Online focus groups demand that a moderator possesses strong and fast keyboard skills or is willing to hire an assistant who does.

Also, moderating online groups requires someone who relates to the online venue and recognizes that respondents are excellent at developing relationships in this medium.

Many respondents have participated in chat rooms and feel comfortable online. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the moderator to ensure that less-experienced respondents feel comfortable and valuable.

During the group session respondents see all of the moderator’s questions and the comments of other respondents as they are input.

Each respondent has a name, often a pseudonym, that identifies them and sometimes the responses are colour coded.

They do not see any of the comments from the observers or observer notes to the moderator.

In a study of cross-national online focus groups Scholl, Mulders and Drent (2002) noticed that the respondents are inclined to respond primarily to the moderator, and that interaction between respondents is lower than with face-to-face groups.

The moderator can stimulate interaction by inviting respondents to react to each other’s comments, such as; “Peter, what do you think of the answer Mary gave on this question?”
Regarding analysis and reporting of the focus group, transcripts are available quickly.

The final report covers areas similar to traditional reporting of focus groups, such as objectives, methodology, conclusions, and findings.

Typically, reports can be turned around quicker because of the immediate availability of transcripts (Sweet, 2001; O’Connor and Madge, 2003).

Technologies for online focus groups
Until a few years ago, the only way a qualitative researcher could remotely view a live focus group was through videoconferencing, and that required a special venue and dedicated phone lines carrying the video to the researcher’s office.

Now internet video streaming (also called web casting or internet video broadcasting) is growing rapidly in acceptance.

Web casting now comprises about 15 percent of the market for focus group video broadcasts, and is growing steadily.

Videoconferencing is familiar to most researchers. At its most basic, a video camera records the focus group’s discussion, and the picture is sent over digital phone lines to a monitor watched by the client’s executives.

Although they are not on-site, with videoconferencing, remote viewers still may be able to communicate with moderators by audio or video during or after the session.

Internet video streaming is a better option with the widespread deployment of broadband technology.

The picture quality is better, although the size of the picture, seen on a computer screen, is small.

Also, remote viewers typically can communicate with the moderator only via two-way text chat.

Whereas videoconferencing can accommodate a potentially unlimited number of viewers, video streaming can be viewed by a maximum of fifteen to twenty people at one time.

But the biggest disadvantage of videoconferencing – and one of the strengths of video streaming – is geography; videoconferencing has to happen at a specially equipped venue, but video streaming can be seen on any computer with a broadband network, and in future also by mobile phones and handheld computers.

The cost of internet video streaming for a single, two-hour focus group session is similar to videoconferencing but the computer equipment is far cheaper than a dedicated videoconferencing unit.

Advantages and disadvantages of online groups
There are numerous advantages to online focus groups as compared to face-to-face focus groups (Reid and Reid, 2005).

First, they are inexpensive and eliminate the costs of traveling, lodging, and renting venues.

The research can also be completed in a shorter time as traveling time and time needed to arrange venues are eliminated.

Although participants may not have a chance to touch a product or its prototype in the case of product research, 3D images and graphics of prototypes can be sent electronically, or test samples mailed in advance.

More importantly, because the discussion is conducted electronically, the researcher has an accurate record.

Also, analysis of the information obtained in an electronic focus group can be faster because there is no need to go through the transcription process.

Because the internet is global, research can be conducted internationally. Advertisements can be put in appropriate newsgroups to invite people to participate in paid focus group sessions.

This is very attractive to researchers who are interested in cross-cultural studies using focus group techniques.

Another advantage of an electronic focus group concerns the lower level of stress on the part of the participants.

They can take part in the discussion in a familiar (home) environment, and there is no need to worry about appearance, so they feel more relaxed in expressing themselves.

Someone joining a discussion at home is more likely to make a contribution. There are no interviewer/interviewee biases, nor social desirability biases that would distort the results because the discussion is conducted in a faceless and anonymous situation.

That is, other participants’ tone of voice, dress and gestures are normally not seen by the interviewee and cannot influence the interviewee’s responses.

Removing the need to travel can be crucial to those participants who may have restricted mobility.

Also, since every participant can enter an opinion into the system at any time, electronic focus groups can avoid the problem of a particular participant dominating the talking, a common problem in traditional focus groups.

Those individuals who are shy and reticent to speak in face-to-face group interactions may find the virtual environment a liberating one in which they can “speak.” Finally, it is easier to recruit hardtop-find target respondents

Disadvantages of online focus groups
It is difficult to attract an online sample that truly reflects the domestic population. The feasibility of online data collection depends on the level of internet usage among potential respondents.

Generally speaking, surveys have found that the online community is predominantly white, affluent executives and professionals and that college graduates are over-represented.

Hence, participants in online discussions will most likely be those who are higher in socio-economic status, and those who are familiar with the technology.

Like traditional focus groups, editors of online groups may therefore be unable to get representative participants unless the target sample is of higher-than-average socio-economic status.

Another disadvantage is that since the discussion is conducted in a faceless environment, the moderator will not be able to read the facial expressions and body language, make eye contact, nor hear the tone of voice of participants.

However, a researcher can solve this problem by arranging the discussion in premises where videoconferencing facilities are available, otherwise only participants with video conferencing software or a PC-mounted web camera should be invited to participate.

Of course, the researcher must be willing to tolerate a lower degree of openness in expressing opinions when participants know that they are being observed.

Since online participants cannot touch the product and can only see images of it, the method may not be suitable for some products.

Some people may have poor keyboard skills. This problem may be particularly difficult in an environment when English is not the mother tongue and when software that uses the local language has not been developed.

There are other, technological difficulties. For example, the speed of typing dominates interaction rather than the most vocal personality and this may change the rules of engagement.

Those with slower typing speeds, or participants who prefer more time to consider their replies may find themselves lagging behind, still preparing an answer to an earlier question and finding the discussion has moved on.

This may result in the loss of valuable data as the respondent deletes the reply and moves forward to join the continuing discussion.

Furthermore, the participation in the virtual interview requires a far higher level of motivation and interest from the interviewee than would be the case in a conventional interview.

The interviewee has to provide the relevant equipment (the computer), bear the financial costs of being online for the interview and be prepared to take part in a physically quite demanding interview involving typing and reading.

There is a need to think, type, look at the screen, read the text and maintain a logical thread of answering.

The same is true for the interviewers, who also have to cover all relevant questions, probe unclear answers and ensure that everyone is still taking part, while under considerable time pressure to get a response on the screen.

4.4 Quantifying text: methodological challenges and available software
Recent advances in computer hardware and software have improved both speed and value of data analysis.

Nevertheless, it is still a tedious and time-consuming task to quantify qualitative data. Text is a tremendously complicated construction – much more complicated than numeric data.

A two-hour discussion of eight to ten people contains approximately 5,000 words, so there will be 5,000 data points.

While many words are unique, others appear frequently. It is reasonable to assume that such a focus group contains something like 1,000 unique words.

If we consider text as a statistical measurement problem, this corresponds to 5,000 observations of a single variable.

Before computer-analyzing a text, one first needs a typewritten excerpt of the input material (i.e., a video of a focus group interview).

Theoretically, one could use speech recognition software and let respondents talk into microphones.

Unfortunately, even the most powerful software is inadequate for automatic statistical conversion: it is easier to retype the manuscript than edit the automatically recognized text. Once the text has been typed and refined it is ready for analysis.

1. Record the focus group discussion, preferably using a video (a voice recorder will not record non-verbal communication).

Although quantitative techniques cannot register nodding, smiling, etc., the researcher has the opportunity to inspect the video and use non-verbal communication for his qualitative report.

2. It is necessary to produce a complete text excerpt of the verbal communication.

3. The input text has to be prepared appropriately before the quantitative analysis can begin.

4. A series of quantitative runs needs to be performed. If the findings seem interpretable, the analysis ends and the findings can be documented and published.

5. If step five produces results that make no sense, one of several interventions is possible:

(a) The researcher can try again by varying the options and parameters that come with the software, or choose other software. If other systems do not work, the researcher may be forced to move one step back.

(b) The reseacher can continue working on the coding of the text (step three). Maybe the preparation phase was not handled properly. This procedure is both cumbersome and time-consuming, but it may prove necessary.

(c) If new runs do not provide satisfactory results, the researcher probably is advised to abandon further quantitative analysis.

Researchers can choose from a wide array of software for analyzing text. Table 4.1 provides an indication of what is available.

Textual computer programs have been plagued by two main weaknesses. One important drawback, of course, concerns processing time, as it is a very time-consuming and cumbersome task to manipulate the input file and ready it for analysis.

Another fundamental problem concerns basic methodological philosophy. Most scholars agree upon what constitutes a powerful quantitative model: a scientific algorithm should provide the researcher with clues about “hidden” patterns in the data.

Moreover, a capable program ought to include options to automate this part of the procedure.

It should not be necessary that the researcher has to make all the modelbuilding assumptions.

Unfortunately, that is exactly how many text analysis programs work. One of the above programs, Catpac, addresses the latter problem in an interesting way.

Summing up
A focus group is a small number of people brought together and guided by a moderator through an unstructured, spontaneous discussion about a topic.

The goal of a group is to drag out ideas, feelings, and experiences about a certain issue that would be obscured or stifled by more structured methods of data collection.

The use of a small group allows the operation of group dynamics and helps make the participants feel comfortable.

It is called a “focus” group because the moderator serves to focus the discussion on the topic and does not let the group dwell on irrelevant points.

Focus groups are a useful and often cost-effective method of gathering insight about a topic.

Efficiency can be enhanced by following a clearly defined framework:

Step 1: Define the problem

Step 2: Establish the groups for the sessions:
? The number of groups
? The size of a group
? Who should be selected for the group?
? How should participants be recruited?
? Selection of the venue
? The timing of sessions
? Selection of moderator and assistant

Step 3: Conducting discussions:
? The level of moderator involvement
? The number of topics in a session
? Identifying questions or topics for discussion
? Pre-test the moderator’s guide

Step 4: Analyzing the discussion

All stages of the discussion are of equal importance. Focus groups are a versatile research methodology, but can be misused unless a well thought-out planning process is followed.

An appropriate number of respondents in each group is six to ten. A critical element is the moderator, who must be careful not to bias participants’ responses.

Focus groups are most useful when they produce new results. However, the results of focus groups cannot be generalized to the larger population, as the participants may not be representative of the target population. Emphasis is on analytic generalizability, rather than statistical generalizability.

Technology is increasing the range and types of measurement tools and respondent pools available to market researchers.

With the internet, not having to get a group of people together in a room potentially offers substantial savings.

Conducting qualitative research online in chat rooms is becoming more popular as a way of collecting insights and information.

Online focus groups are ideal for locating and researching markets that are hard to recruit, touch on sensitive topics, and geographically dispersed.

After a discussion of traditional qualitative interviews, other approaches of quantifying bodies of text are introduced.

Today, several programs can be used for quantitative assessment of text. One is assessed. Catpac is a self-organizing neural network.

It begins with a set of artificial neurons: one for each word in the text it is reading. The analysis is initiated by passing a “scanning window” of n consecutive words through the text.

The structure thus established can be represented by a square matrix of numbers. Each row and column represents a neuron (word), while each number (an updateable weight) represents the strength of connections of the neurons corresponding to the row and column of the number (cell entry).

The resulting matrix resembles a covariance or correlation matrix and can be used as an input matrix for multivariate statistical analysis.

Results are scrutinized using cluster analysis and perceptual space analysis. It is concluded that the software can be of value for the marketing, provided appropriate time is dedicated to the analysis.

In which business situations are focus groups a relevant research tool?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups, compared with other methods?

Why is the focus group moderator so important?

What are the advantages of online focus groups?

Above it’s shown  how to quantify an excerpt from a focus group discussion. Are there other forms of marketing communication that could be used for quantitative analysis?

Keywords: Focus group, interviews, focused interview, marketing research, research methodologies, research, moderator, facilitator, catalyst, qualitative research,

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