With the advent of the Internet, do we need traditional "in-person" research studies?

A Look at Qualitative Market Research


Formally defined, a focus group is a small (usually 6 to 10 people) in-person group session designed to elicit opinions about a particular research topic, often managed by an independent moderator. A focus group is a form of qualitative research, which elicits attitudes and opinions, as opposed to quantitative research, which is about measuring hard facts like data about the population being studied. Focus groups are gathered for research on everything from cars to restaurant service to Websites.

If you were a marketer before the days of Internet startups, you may have done some formal focus group testing. For those of you who haven't, let me summarize what it entailed, the best part being the M&M's (keep reading). Let's say there was an idea for a new widget for which initial market research showed great demand. Once primary and secondary market research was completed, overall budget approved, and a team appointed, the product manager and engineering team geared up a prototype. This prototype was either almost completely functional, or not functional at all (e.g. a block of wood) with an intro like, "Imagine, if you will...".

Then came the focus group. Often a formal survey company ran the group, and would apply a typical customer's profile that the product manager provided (age, income, geographic location, annual income, hobbies, job title and so on). The organizer performed research and made many telephone calls to secure multiple groups of about 10 people. They had to be willing to come to a conference room for less than a couple hours for about a hundred bucks and spill their guts as to why they'd buy it, and more importantly, why not.

Remember those detective movies where the bad guy sits in a bright room being badgered by some tough interrogator, while police and victims watch behind the two-way mirror? You've now imagined a focus group session, with the exception that the interrogator is usually much more amenable, the room is air conditioned and carpeted, and snacks are freely distributed to the focus groupies. The moderator often starts with an anonymous introduction about the company, and then lets each person experience the product individually. The moderator then goes around the room to solicit answers from a few questions generated beforehand in a discussion guide.

Behind that mirrored window is a dimly-lit room where the 'key management team' (usually from product marketing and product management) listen intently to all the comments and intonations made by at least 3 separate focus groups while eating bowls and bowls (and bowls) of M&M's and other junk-food provided by the host (at a not insignificant markup).

The point is that a focus group can give real customer-based feedback that can lead to product validation or major or minor changes. Costly product decisions can be justified by the focus group. Sessions are often videotaped.


Focus groups represent one type of qualitative research. Qualitative research is the more "touchy-feely" side of a consumer opinion, whereas quantitative research is the more "hard facts" side with charts, surveys and statistics. Both should be done as part of due diligence in research, and both can be done online very effectively.

Reviewing generally accepted definitions, marketing research really falls into two categories: primary research and secondary research. Primary research is research you perform for the benefit of your product. Secondary research is research others perform such as analysts, experts and even the press regarding your product or space. The Web has brought us many online tools to assist in performing both types of research (see our InfoWatch product for more information on cost-effective research provided daily).

Ways to perform qualitative research online include:

Online questionnaires that asks questions about how a consumer feels about something (as opposed to a quantitative question, like how old they are).
Online chat sessions, where you instigate, watch, learn and interact with chat room members.
Online focus groups, which are similar to chat sessions but much more regulated and moderated.

With the Internet, market researchers have benefited exponentially in gathering information. Online marketing tools delivered via Web browser now allow cost-effective solutions to research problems that were cost-prohibitive as little as 5 years ago.


Undoubtedly you've heard of General Motors' faux pas with the brand name "Chevy Nova". Why did the car not sell in Spanish-speaking countries? Because the name was never focus-tested outside English-speaking circles. "No va" means "no go" in Spanish. (Whoops!) And goodness knows the VCR manufacturers never asked focus groups to set the clocks on their machines by themselves.

I'll never forget one product my team researched. We were blown out of the water as group after group, city after city, individuals kept requesting this product accessory that we unanimously believed was not only impractical, but actually ridiculous. It turned out to be one of our best sellers.

Not only can focus groups provide valuable product direction, they can also help eliminate the need for PR and marketing damage control. The resulting data can be interpreted by individual team members, but also now by sophisticated software that content-analyzes the words and word sequences used repeatedly within the interview. The strength of word associations can be quantified to create a map of those conversations. The result is a stronger understanding of how the customer feels about your product.


Most agree that focus groups are valuable, but here are some pros and cons.

The Pros:
The good part of a focus group is that you get to physically watch and listen to every single reaction a potential customer has with a product. Hearing and seeing what a customer does with the product can be very telling. You can explore new ideas without implementing them. You will learn what quantitative questions to ask as the next part of your research begins. Finally, a group setting can trigger more thoughts than would be generated in a 1:1 interview.

The Cons:
It has been proven that stronger personalities can easily sway opinions of others in a group, no matter how the moderator coaches the session. Also, people are being paid to sit there, so they may not tell the truth or may not add any value because they just want to get the cash and go home. Finally, it is quite nerve-wracking to make major product decisions based on what a relatively small group says, and that is what a sample size is.

Therefore whoever gathers the group together in the first place has the biggest responsibility in ensuring that:

The right sample size is chosen.
The individuals chosen are in fact a proper sampling of qualified potential customers.
The discussion guide questions are effective.
The moderator can pull out information when necessary without leading the participants.


The Internet can save cost and time when executing focus groups — but more for the management and acquisition of target candidates rather than the actual interview process. In-person focus groups managed by agencies often range in cost from $10,000 to $30,000. However in-person interviews can also be done in a coffee shop with qualified candidates. I've conducted valid focus groups in a small conference room with a simple video camera and a laptop. It is important to note that most marketers, including myself, still believe an in-person interview is more valuable than an online interview to catch the human, "touchy-feely" opinions, the body language, and the arch of the eyebrow.

Online tools to manage focus groups are available today. Chat rooms and sending email campaigns can be used to gather potential focus group candidates.


If we agree that the phrase Schmocus Group means as a waste of time, then a well-crafted and carried out focus group is definitely not. There are a number of important data points that must be measured, usually in person, in tandem with online research efforts. You can do market research online and the Internet has become an indispensable tool, but until pure emotions can be communicated readily online, we will still need to involve the human touch in market research.

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Teri Dahlbeck is the cofounder of GotMarketing.com