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Internet is Revolutionizing Use of Focus Groups

by Alf Nucifora

One of marketing's most reliable and heavily used research tools, the focus group, has now been made even more attractive and user-friendly.

The focus group is a roundtable discussion session, typically involving 8 to 10 individuals who are recruited to come to a central research facility for two hours or so, where they discuss a topic of interest and led by a moderator or facilitator who guides the discussion into pre-determined areas.

Focus group research (often termed qualitative research), while not statistically valid, can provide valuable diagnostic consumer feedback on a variety of subjects and matters from the benefits of a brand of cat food to the perceptions of a political candidate.

Focus groups are normally conducted in multiple markets in order to gain feedback that represents geographic and demographic variation. Their real value lies in the ability to allow an interested viewing group to sit behind a one-way mirror to watch and listen to what the group participants have to say. This voyeuristic viewing technique delivers diagnostic insights about overall behavior that one cannot glean from a depersonalized, written summary. That's why focus groups remain so popular.

The primary objection to focus groups has, to this point, involved cost and logistics. The expense of moving a large group of observers across the country can become exorbitant to the extent that travel expense can sometimes exceed the cost of the focus group itself. There is also a difficulty in getting senior managers and top-level executives to attend. Many cannot afford the time and schedules are often impossible to coordinate. Ironically, lower level employees who would greatly benefit from observing the research are also precluded from attending because of cost.

Although videoconferencing was introduced some years ago as an alternative to actual focus group observation, its success has been limited because of high price, technical/equipment problems and the logistical hassle of moving observers to a central videoconferencing center.

Enter The Internet.
The advent of video streaming technology now means that focus groups can be observed "live" from the comfort of one's desk. The focus group technique itself remains unchanged. Participants gather at a location to discuss and talk under the guidance of a group facilitator. However, observers no longer need to be onsite, behind the mirror to view the proceedings. A camera captures all the action close-up, including facial expressions, and broadcasts the action via video streaming to an unlimited number of viewers who can watch real-time from the comfort of their desktop computers at any time, any place.

Observers normally require a password to gain access to the proceedings and have the option of commenting on the discussion via text with other observers. Once the focus group session is completed the data is saved to a server where it can again be viewed by the client on an on-demand basis. Material can also be indexed for easy retrieval by subject matter and stored on CD-ROM.

ActiveGroup jumps out ahead.
Atlanta-based ActiveGroup has emerged as one of the leaders in the provision of Internet-based focus group technology. According to President and founder David Nelems, ActiveGroup has already conducted more than 1000 hours of focus groups online and more than 140 focus group facility locations across the U.S. are now offering its technology.

In addition to focus groups, ActiveGroup is now beginning to offer similar video streaming capability for shopping mall intercept surveys. The company is also applying the technology to computer usability testing where a camera situated above the computer monitor captures facial expression (to gauge degree of satisfaction/confusion) and plots user reaction side-by-side (split screen) with actual computer navigation.

According to Nelems, the major benefits of the ActiveGroup technology are reduced travel cost and an expanded viewing audience. The negatives involve still limited broadband penetration in the home, lack of awareness of the technology itself and a research community that is traditionally slow in embracing new methodologies. But it's catching on. Nelems cites companies such as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Dell, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Mitsubishi and Fox Broadcasting as current users. With the big boys on board, the rest of the world shouldn't be far behind.

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