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Online Research Communities vs Online Focus Groups

Leading the Customer Success team here at Further, I get asked a lot by researchers about Online Focus Groups (OFGs). Sure, they have some benefits, but more often than not, researchers can achieve more with their asynchronous cousin, the Online Research Community (ORC). Here’s why...

Online Research Communities vs Online Focus Groups

Online research communities are now one of the most popular forms of online qualitative research, delivering richer and more contextual data about the participant. You can engage them in an important moment - when they are out and about, doing some shopping, at a social event etc. Online research communities also enable the researcher to engage, question and probe the participant before an event (around a topic), during the event or moment, and also after the event so that the participant can reflect on what took place.

Our extensive experience in supporting and managing online research communities has resulted in a lot of feedback from participants who tell us how fun and rewarding the experience was for them, and how easy it was to take part because it’s less intrusive by nature.

More traditional Focus Groups (FGs) conducted in person, in facilities, see participants sat in a room with as many as seven other strangers keen to voice their opinion and share their views and experiences. But in truth, what often happens is that they meekly agree with what other participants have just before them, to validate their participation and earn their incentive. Far from ideal if you want to capture authentic views. That’s not to mention the inconvenience of having to take time out of their day to come to a remote location for an hour or more.

The researcher’s experience 

Learning how to manage more dominant participants and coax an original opinion from some of the quieter members is challenging, but online research communities make it much easier to create a level playing field where all voices can be heard. Oh, and transcribing focus groups, what a pain - you’re lucky if you get 8 minutes of quality contribution per participant in a focus group!

OFGs and ORCs help with some of those problems. For  example, some technologies help manage bias and neutralise the louder voices by hiding responses from the rest of the group until others have responded. Another great feature is instant transcription, meaning researchers can export transcripts in a moment.

However, there remain some challenges with OFGs. Participants in OFGs can join in from the comfort of their homes, favourite coffee shops or even their office. But, they have to be online at the same time for an extended period, which can be inconvenient to some, and it's still a relatively unfamiliar experience for most, leaving the potential for technical challenges.

ORCs give you an amazing opportunity to interact with your subjects in a way that mimics their everyday behaviours. How many times have you and your friends agreed to speak on WhatsApp in a big group for 30-40 minutes? Even if you have done this before, how many times have you just chipped into your group chat whenever it suits you? Exactly. This is what asynchronous online research communities mimic. Whether your participant is an early bird or a night owl, a #GirlBoss or stay-at-home-Dad, they can all participate in the discussion, when it suits them and during the periods they would choose to engage with online and mobile content.

There are benefits for your moderators too. Instead of reacting to every participant's comments within the hour, in real-time, you have more time to analyse responses, probe (in private or within the group) and make a lasting connection that will garner richer responses. With ORCs there’s no need for immediacy which can sometimes lead to a loss of control.

Ultimately, the reason we like to speak out about this is that we believe online research communities get you better quality responses, richer contextual insight (and more of it) than OFGs. Participants take part on their terms. By leveraging native digital behaviours, they are also more likely to share truthful responses in the moment, rather than composed thoughts after the event.

For Example: Using Online Research Communities to Capture the Social Lives of Consumers

One of the most creative approaches to an online research community that we’ve seen involved 120 design-savvy clubbers who were located in some of the coolest cities around the world. The purpose of the community was to unearth insight on the social behaviours and, in particular, their ‘club lives’ over a three-week period for one of the world’s most famous beer brands. Participants were (typically) hyper-connected on social media, so we used these same behaviours to encourage them to share every moment and create a consumer journey map that visualised the needs, wants, hope and desires of clubbers. We were able to highlight clearly their experience and motivating factors.

The client – a team of designers and innovation specialists – used the outputs to inspire design and innovation thinking, enabling a more human-centred design methodology and rapid prototyping. What’s more, the online research community outputs created an itinerary of places to 'go see' for the design team who embarked on an extensive tour of nightlife hotspots!

The overall approach inspired the client’s design team to surface new consumer-centric concepts that challenged the current nightlife experience. By providing a 24/7 connection between the client team and clubbers, a fully immersive experience played out and provided a longitudinal view of the lives of the target audience as well as the opportunity to conduct consumer co-creation.


nine_waysNine Ways to Improve Your Online Research Communities

With commentary and best practice from global industry experts, you'll be able to run even more successful online research communities once you apply some of these great tips. 

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