Online focus groups and the search for the ‘truth’

In research over the years there has been lots of theories and discussions about getting the truth from our group participants.  Do we really know if they are telling us the truth?  Do consumers even know what they want?  Is Jane from Croydon who buys budget supermarket own brand ready meals really not a secret Waitrose Finest shopper?

In all our years we have only had a handful of occasions where we have doubted the authenticity of our respondents.   Rarely have we felt that in the actual focus groups anyone is bluffing.  For consumer research we often we talk in depth about stuff that most people never talk in depth about – how do you like your washing products displayed on shelves? Which toothpaste label stands out?  How could this tax brochure be better illustrated?  But people are great, and they know what they buy and what they like and 99% of the time it works.

So, imagine with all this angst about the authentic respondent – how this played out in the anxieties of researchers switching to online groups.  I mean if, in theory, respondents can be evasive to our faces imagine the horrors of error and subterfuge that can happen online!!

Can we trust the process that we used for face to face and make it work online? We feel that the same process of planning research is still effective we just need to make adjustments. We have our target participant, but we now have to ensure they have access to the internet (although this is probably less of problem now than ever before).  Our group size is smaller to enable ease of discussion and we adjust our discussion guides to take into account concentration spans

But – the big question – are we still getting the same ‘truth’ from our clients? 

I would say yes, our participants have been great and most now take Zoom in their stride, it’s been used for so many family and friend catch ups that within a few months, it was rare to find anyone (of any age group) who hadn’t used Zoom or another similar platform.  Many enjoyed taking part without the hassle of travel and parking and our attendance rates have been almost 100% (unheard of in our face to face days!).

But more importantly we have seen and understood people in a similar but different way that has sometimes given us more insight into our participants lives.  For example, talking to students about their university experiences we have seen first-hand their isolation, talking to us from their tiny bedrooms.  When we have looked into IT poverty issues – we have had to deal with limited bandwidth and a constant on and off of the video to keep the connection going.  We’ve talked to staff about teamwork and observed the impact on the group of the one person who refuses to turn their video on.  Discussion about career progression for females finds us sharing screen time with young children and puppies.  It all adds up to a rich tapestry of situations and real lives which somehow feels more authentic than the discussions that use to take place in a soulless office meeting room.

Moving online has made us think about participant engagement in all sorts of ways and 12 months on from the shock of stopping face to face work – it’s been a rather fruitful journey.

Photo by Ayla Verschueren on Unsplash