The various articles looking at online qualitative research over the last few months reflect the growing interest in this relatively new and often confused methodology. This article is about online focus groups: where people meet at an appointed time in a virtual room and respond in real-time to questions and stimulus shown by the moderator along with comments posted by other participants. So for avoidance of doubt, I will not be referring to blogs, bulletin boards, online diaries or Netnography, tools best seen as complementary to online groups rather than conflicting.

And for further clarification, I believe the most effective of such groups are still text based. Recent experiments with video online groups seem to produce the worst of both worlds: you neither get the full understanding of non-verbal cues (offline groups) nor the benefits of complete participant anonymity (online groups). So for ease of reference I am going to refer to online focus groups as "ChatGroups".

But let's move away from the theoretical debate and focus on opportunities that can be effectively researched using online groups. The high level of interest in the excellent course run by Joanna Chrzanowska and John Griffiths (In Brief, September/October 2010) suggests that there is an appetite for guidance on the practical application of ChatGroups.

Past articles have highlighted instances when online qual can produce dangerous results — perhaps because the approach was unstructured, or used an unrepresentative sample or it simply ignored some basic research principles.

Indeed, for online qualitative research to be effective, new models of best practice must be developed and applied. Given that this methodolgy is relatively new it is not surprising that a degree of trial and error is often the the default option. And to be fair, the approach I would recommend has evolved as a result of conducting over 500 ChatGroups in a variety of languages, in a variety of sectors and covering a wide variety of stimulus material from packaging through to websites.

First of all let's be clear about the benefits of ChatGroups, best summarised by a pioneering client, Phil Tysoe, head of insight at Comet: “We have used ChatGroups to evaluate new creative for TV ads, proposition development for new services and most recently to provide insight on the development of our new website. Whatever the particular task the key benefits, relative to off-line groups, are derived from the freedom of expression that participants enjoy, taking part from the natural environment and security of their own home. This has the effect of virtually eliminating the negative impact of peer group pressure, which in some situations is almost impossible (even for the best moderators) to completely overcome. More recently we have also found that the latest online platforms, enabling participants to share thoughts and ideas on interactive whiteboards, help provide context.”

Conversations with other brand owners suggest that Phil is not alone in this perspective. Major brands are positively interested in this new methodology and they are the drivers for change.

So, perhaps the inherently conservative world inhabited by the majority of qualitative researchers needs a bit of a shakeup? It might even prompt the more established, larger agencies to rethink their business model. Or perhaps the real opportunity is for research consultants who have an innovative mindset and entrepreneurial spirit?

One thing is certain: the winners will have an open mind and develop the new skills required to conduct effective ChatGroups. And if you are one of those inspired thinkers, here are a few practical tips to get you started.

  • Central to the model for best practice is the importance of developing the moderator's guide and stimulus material to be used on the whiteboard, so that they work in a seamless and integrated manner.

  • The moderator's guide should anticipate the likely direction the group will take so that salient points are accurately and comprehensively covered.
  • Moderators have the freedom to select particular questions and supplement these to probe particular topics in greater depth.

  • Any attempt, however, to moderate the group purely "on-the-fly" is likely to produce anarchy, as the speed with which participants exchange ideas can often mean that the moderator is playing catch up.

  • It will also mean that the moderator has to respond in real time to private messages from the client.

  • Most platforms provide standard text-based questions, interactive whiteboards and polls. Using a mix of text based answers and projective techniques on the whiteboards gives participants variety and heightens their engagement.

  • Incorporating additional stimulus material such as positioning statements, images and video clips can further enhance this.

Perhaps the real skill for moderators is using the above functionality and methodology to create a stimulating environment that encourages freedom of expression. Like the offline world, that requires an enquiring mind and appropriate experimentation and practice — on how to use the online tools to best advantage.

As Phil will testify, most clients get really engaged in the process, keen to view the sessions and prompt the moderator on areas for further exploration. But it should not be clients taking the lead. Research consultancies must wholeheartedly embrace the world of online focus groups or ChatGroups so they don't get left behind, for that's when standards etc., will start to slip.

This is an area where trial is even better than theory. Small wonder, then, that many companies are offering just that: a free 90-minute online group.