How to Use Online Focus Groups

Online focus groups are a method of qualitative marketing research, using Internet technology and widespread computer connectivity.

Moderators, respondents, and observers meet on a special, secure web site.

A typical online group consists of a moderator, 10 to 30 respondents, and observers.

The moderator posts questions and respondents post their comments, while observers watch the proceedings.

How Online Groups Work

There are two types of online focus groups: real-time and bulletin board.

Bulletin board focus groups are easier to moderate than real-time. Speedy typing and coordination are required for real-time online groups.

In a bulletin board group, the moderator, respondents, and observers don’t need to meet at the same time. They can log-in any time during a bulletin board session.

Bulletin board sessions typically run for three or four days, but can run for weeks or months.

The recruiter recruits, screens, and invites respondents to an online focus group.

Moderators, respondents, and observers log-in to a secure (HTTPS) web site, using a user name and password.

The moderator sets the rules, and posts questions, using a moderator’s discussion guide.

Respondents can only see what and when the moderator allows them to see...questions and respondents’ responses, or concepts, or mini-surveys.

Observers log-in at their convenience too, and can ask the moderator to probe respondents’ answers. Respondents cannot see the observers.

Applications – How to Use

Online groups are effective for concept testing. You show respondents concepts online and get their reactions, even showing multimedia concepts. They can be new product concepts or advertising concepts.

You can track product awareness, purchase and use. You can follow respondents for weeks or months.

Online depth interviews work well too. You interview one person at a time. They are useful when you need to interview busy experts.

And within an online focus group, you can depth interview each respondent, without other respondents knowing it. It’s a useful tool to probe sensitive, personal topics.

You can use online groups before and after quantitative surveys, or even mix quantitative surveys into the online group session.

And you can mix online groups with face-to-face groups, or telephone depth interviews.


Respondents post their responses...opinions, feelings, attitudes, perceptions, stories, and descriptions of behaviors, delivering written qualitative data.

Plus they can e-mail or post pictures or images to an online journal or blog. Or stream via web-cam, so you can see respondents’ facial expressions.

Online groups are fast. You get responses as soon as respondents post them. Transcripts are immediately available for analysis. You get instant word for word quotes.

Respondents, moderators, analysts, and observers don’t need to travel. Computers and the Internet make it possible. It saves travel time and costs.

You can reach respondents in remote areas, as long as they have Internet access and a computer.

You can communicate with respondents for long periods of time…weeks or months, and follow respondents’ product awareness, buying, and usage and related attitudes and behaviors. You follow the product cycle from the customers point of view.

Using the depth interview feature, you can ask sensitive, personal topics of respondents.

When Not to Use

Don’t use online groups if people in the target segment have limited-access to the Internet. Or, if they don’t have experience with computers and the Internet.

Don’t use online focus groups when you cannot verify the identity of respondents. You want make sure responses are coming from those who say they are.


Online focus groups are a convenient, cost-effective, efficient way to capture qualitative data.

Use the data to gain information and insights. Apply it to develop advertising, product, and marketing.

Return to Planning from online focus groups
Return to Home Page