A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why companies shouldn’t give up on focus groups,” created some enthusiastic buzz on our qual research team. As it circulated through our inboxes, we found ourselves nodding in agreement on points like, “To really understand the beliefs, motivations and passions that move people, it is still necessary to sit down and listen to them, which is what qualitative research is all about.” However, we believe the article missed an opportunity to highlight the true power of qualitative research – its ability to strengthen quantitative research and big data, as well as deep dive on exploratory topics – and undersold the value of online focus groups.
The power of stories and personal connection
The author of the article observed that in an era of big data, “there is a growing realization that even if the numbers don’t lie, they can be seriously misleading.” We believe the balance of big data through quantitative research and detailed human context through qualitative research are critical to truly grasp the whole picture. By only doing one or the other, you run the risk of looking through the same lens repeatedly, which could result in a distorted viewpoint.
With quantitative data, you get the big picture of human behavior, the “what,” but qualitative gets to the heart of the “why” (this is not a new idea, and a drum we’ve been beating for years, but it bears repeating!). Power comes with both. It’s pivotal in decision making and strategic planning to understand the nuance – qual paired with quant gives you the full story.
And from a client perspective, it’s often easier to absorb the quantitative information when it can also be tied to a personal story. We’ve seen this come to life when a client can excitedly fill in their colleagues on what was learned in a focus group by sharing a story they heard firsthand. They’re able to more easily share the insights with other stakeholders after hearing it grounded in human reality and context.
Online is [way] more than fine
After more than a year of doing exclusively online qualitative research, admittedly we miss some of the benefits of being in person and the unique interpersonal connection that comes from in-person focus groups. But, based on our own experiences, the article sold online qual well short, saying that “Zoom has been a poor substitute” for in-person qual.
We’ve utilized online qual methods for more than a decade, and they’ve always been an important part of our toolbox. And while there are some trade-offs in online vs. in-person, there are many upsides to online. For one, it opens up more options in terms of choosing your markets. In a small online focus group of four to six people, you could have multiple regions represented – without the added expense of physically traveling to several cities across the country. Our findings are reinforced when they are represented by a mix of voices from places we may not have necessarily heard from otherwise.
The key to making online qualitative research successful is having seasoned and trained moderators who can skillfully translate their approach and techniques online, or who have had experience doing online qual for many years pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, we were able to immediately pivot online by relying on strategies that our seasoned moderators have had in their toolkit for years.
Things like taking note of non-verbal cues (i.e., if someone leans in or takes a breath before speaking), knowing how and when to more intentionally call upon people to push further and fully explore the depth of the discussion, and knowing when someone is multi-tasking while in the group and being able to skillfully reengage them and fold them back into the discussion. We put the same energy in online groups that we do for in person – by designing the right approach to get at the right objectives and recruiting the right people, whether they’re in a room or on-screen.
Last, the baseline assumption is that online is great for quickly capturing straightforward research – like concept or pilot testing. But in our experience it’s also a great option for more complex and sensitive topics as some people may feel more comfortable sharing their opinions in an online setting instead of in person.
The bottom line is, we fully intend to continue to recommend and execute qualitative research, including focus groups – in person and online, and we intend to do so for the long-term. Pandemic or not. In most cases we can replicate the benefits of each to allow space for the inherent value of both formats to shine.