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Online Research Communities vs Online Focus Groups

Originally published December 2016, updated Jan 2021

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 - they are quick to set up, quick to execute, they provide instant transcription, so researchers can export transcripts in a moment - but more often than not, researchers can achieve more with their asynchronous cousin, the Online Research Community. Here’s why...

Online Research Communities vs Online Focus Groups

Even before the pandemic drove (almost) everything online, Online research communities were fast becoming one of the most popular forms of online qualitative research. That’s because they offer so many benefits. For example:

  • Flexibility
    An Online Focus Group is a synchronous activity. All participants gather together and answer questions within the same online setting and timeframe. In contrast, online research communities are asynchronous: there’s no requirement for participants to give their responses at the same time.
    That means:

    a) Whether your participant is an early bird or a night owl, a #GirlBoss or a stay-at-home-Dad, they can all participate in the discussion when it suits them.

    That builds engagement, because you’re accessing participants at the moments when they want to look at online and mobile content.

    b) Participants can engage with the research at their own pace, without being constrained by the time constraints of an online focus group.
    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.

    c) Participants can respond to the questions without being affected by the responses of other people (a potential pitfall in both traditional and online focus groups). This makes it easier for all voices to be heard.
  • Rich, contextual data

In an Online Focus Group, you have to ask participants to remember how they behave and feel during any given activity.

With an online research community, you can ask participants to input data whilst going about their normal daily life. It’s an amazing opportunity to interact with your subjects in “real” time. So, for example, a sportswear company could ask participants to give feedback before, during and after going out to exercise.

This genuine involvement in a research-relevant activity pulls in far more contextual information than you can achieve with a focus group. Participants are reflecting on their actions as they’re happening, so they can share richer and more immediate data.

  • More input from each participant

    If you have six people in an online focus group for one hour, you could hope to get – at best - 10 minutes of contributions from each participant.

    If you have six people in a three-day, online research community, each committed to engaging for 20 minutes a day, that equates to 60 minutes of contribution from each participant.

    It’s easy to see which delivers greater value!

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

Online research communities can capture any aspect of people’s lives: including those that are rarely spoken about. We created one community to unearth insight into the (largely) hidden world of male beard grooming. This isn’t a widely-discussed ritual and yet it’s bound up with key emotions and attitudes about contemporary masculinity and identity.

Participants were encouraged to share their thoughts, feeling and behaviours about their facial hair. This all fed into a consumer journey map, visualising the needs, wants, hope and desires of bearded men. We were able to highlight clearly their experience and what motivated their behaviours.

The approach surfaced new consumer-centric concepts that challenged the current beard-grooming provision. The client used the outputs to inspire design and innovation thinking, enabling a more human-centred design methodology and rapid prototyping.

At Further, we have been supporting and managing online research communities for over 12 years. This has resulted in a lot of feedback from participants who tell us how fun, engaging and rewarding the experience was for them but don’t take out word for it, here’s what our clients have to say about their experience of working with us and using our platform.

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 online focus groups. 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.

Want to find out more?


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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