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Online moderated chat interviews are not simple copy-paste of traditional face to face groups or Messenger, WhatsApp or other Internet communicators. It’s worth learning about their specifics, because to effectively reach your research goals certain requirements need to be met. If you know their specifics then I promise it will be a super-efficient tool in the pocket of marketing qualitative research methods. Please, let me introduce you closer to the younger sister of traditional focus groups.

Our online presence is part of our daily life. This is especially true for millennials and younger generations. Even non-tech products exist on the Internet as comments, reviews, tweets. A customer will very often encounter your product for the first time online or will actively look for it before making a buying decision.

Why not also talk to them in the same environment? Learn what they would write in a review, how would they phrase their Facebook comment about it or would they share it on Instagram? And if your product is digital, talk to them in the same conditions in which they use it every day and the gained insights will be closest to the truth.

Words, not data

Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove, simple customer service software, said: “if you really want to get the insight you need – not data, but words – the best way to do that would be through having actual conversations with your customers“.

Even though after gathering these “words”, you maybe won’t know how many of your users have specific preferences or make specific choices, but you will understand what drives their behavior, learn what they want, why do they want it, and how you can provide it to them. How deep you want to go depends on you and your need for understanding. If you create a trusting and pleasant discussion you will be able to go really deep. Remember that regardless if you’re conducting a traditional face to face interview or online, the quality of data you gain depends on the atmosphere that you manage to create in the group, so it’s worth preparing in advance.

Focus groups allow us to understand the underlying motivations of consumer behavior. Dive deep to learn about the reasons for their actions. It’s not an easy process. It requires looking into oneself and opening in front of strangers. But the profit from all this is a better fit product that answers real needs. We don’t reflect on our choices every day and we do a lot of things out of habit, so thinking about reasons of such behavior requires a lot of effort.

Honest and direct answers

A group conversation connects people and engages dialogue. When people feel safe and secure they start an honest conversation. We, as people, tend to form opinions about somebody else just after a few seconds of meeting them. It’s hard to block this, even if we are fully aware that such quick judgment will probably be far from the truth.

There was a legend on my university that the dean always sat with his back towards the students who were taking oral exams, so that the final score he gave wasn’t affected by such a first impression. Online interviews eliminate such biases. They are pure discussions without visual personal effects. Everyone is completely equal and participates on the same principles. Their background, face expressions, culture, crooked legs or fashionable clothes don’t matter at all. Typing allows all respondents to speak up honestly and directly.

Traditional face to face interviews tend to attract extravert participants, who are not afraid of confrontations or being judged by the group. Awareness of being recorded, observed, having cameras and microphones in the room can often cause off behaviors, even in the most chilled-out environments. People don’t like to be observed, it is not natural and doesn’t come easy for everybody.

What matters are the screening criteria – this is what connects all participants together and their opinions, points of view, arguments, feelings, emotions, likes and dislikes. This can help you in achieving the research goal. In face to face conversation it is sometimes easier to spot what is the common characteristic, but in online interviews you may have to articulate it so that the participants can feel the connection. Don’t hesitate to send a short note at the beginning of the interview with some info about them as a group, what connects them, why they were chosen for this specific group, etc.

In my experience of comparing face to face and chat focus groups, the second one results in a much more honest and verbose opinions. Respondents are not afraid to criticize (or equally praise). And what’s more, you can meet all kinds of characters on the other side of the screen, like introverts or shy people who would never be able to speak their mind face to face next to a one-sided mirror, if they even signed up to attend. It’s very well reflected in the results we obtain from this type of focus groups.

Anonymity is the strongest advantage of online chat focus groups. They combine advantages of two of the most used marketing methods: questionnaires – anonymity –  and focus groups – discussion. This makes it a powerful tool for easy gathering of honest and direct feedback and learning insights. People are much more honest when nobody can see them. Everybody wants to be liked and it is rather common that we want to avoid saying face to face that something doesn’t work or doesn’t meet our expectations. The only way to learn the truth is to create a safe environment for research.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and founder, made a good point saying that “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room“. Your goal is to create ‘the room without you’ for all discussion time. Online chat focus groups are brilliant for this case: there isn’t any way to see each other, all respondents are just nicknames. You can learn all about your topics with 100% honesty.

Read more about anonymity in online focus groups :

Chat dynamics and topics

Byron Sharp in his article “I do hope focus groups are going out of fashion” mentions that one of the drawbacks of focus groups is that “each respondent only gets to speak for a few minutes”. Online chat focus groups have a different dynamic. They have something in common with IDI – Individual In-depth Interviews. When a moderator asks a question every participant is answering at the same time without seeing what the rest of the group is going to answer or somebody cutting in. As a result, every participant is equally allowed to speak and their responses are much more varied than in traditional focus groups. At the same time the dynamics of a conversation and interactions among participants are not lost.

A situation where one or few people dominate the whole group is problematic and demands great skills in conducting this kind of research. But some forms of focus groups can eliminate this kind of problem. In online chat interviews it is very challenging for a participant to dominate the group. Respondents don’t listen (read) to each other as carefully as in face to face interviews. It is really hard to impose somebody’s opinion on other participants. I can’t say that dominators don’t exist in online chat focus groups, but they are definitely less likely to show up and less likely to be a problem than in face to face interviews. If push comes to shove, they can be removed from the discussion.

A big advantage of focus groups is the ability to adjust questions during an interview. Very often the client wants to ask additional questions that come to their mind while listening to the discussion. In an online chat focus group it is also possible for the client to observe the interview and send some questions or requests to ask more questions about some topics to the moderator. There is a ‘virtual’ back room, specially designed for clients. Mostly they don’t have a direct impact on the discussion but they could send some notes to the moderator.

Online focus groups are great to explore sensitive and intimate topics, especially related to health. First of all, because participants don’t have to travel anywhere – which can be annoying and even challenging in some personal conditions. But mainly because during online chat focus groups participants don’t see each other and at the same time they are listened to. Self-disclosure is easier in some settings. For some participants it can be easy to talk about their illness with others, but mostly people control themselves in social situations. Online discussion perfectly solves these problems. Respondent’s willingness to open up is more a subject to the interview’s atmosphere than the specific person’s personality.

Try online focus groups

Focus groups are often questioned because they are not representative of the whole community. However, according to Jakob Nielsen it is enough to have “3-4 participants from each category to ensure that you covered the diversity of behavior within the group”. This means about 4-5 focus groups per research and that’s when you can start observing repeating opinions and ideas. In online interviews it is rather the same.

It may be an old school method but it works! If you don’t copy all rules that you use in traditional focus groups then it can give you unexpected results (in a good way!). And for sure it is not only a complementary method for traditional interviews, it is also not a substitute, but rather a separate method that has its specificity and requirements. We are going to talk about them on this blog.


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Good luck with your online interviews.