Home Blog Qualitative Research Online vs offline focus groups: which works for you?

Online vs offline focus groups: which works for you?

What customers really think.  

Those four words are the reason focus groups still reign supreme in research. When it comes to delivering useful truths that have the power to shape business decisions, they just deliver. 

Sure, the pandemic kicked qualitative research quickly into the digital fast lane. 

But this go-to research methodology is still evolving, even in the online sphere. And researchers, clients, and participants themselves can benefit from the changes.

What are focus groups? 

So, what are focus groups, exactly? Part of the qualitative research toolbox, focus groups start with a small group of people.  

With a handful of people in the room, you can get up close and personal to really understand how people think and feel. You can delve into their human experience, and you’ll get a deeper, more complete insight into each person.  

Of course, choosing the right people can make or break your research. It’s no good asking dog owners about cat food, or pensioners about primary school uniform, for example!   

Focus groups have been around since the early days of market research. sociologist Robert K. Merton at the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the USA created the first ones, but marketing industry grandee Ernest Dichter is widely viewed as the founder of focus groups. 

Some focus groups have changed the world; from World War II propaganda to winning elections. The power of the focus group is here to stay.  

Let’s look at the difference between the two. No prizes for guessing that face-to-face qualitative research is conducted in person. That includes focus groups but could also be one-to-one interviews. 

Online qualitative research? Those focus groups or one-to-ones are all online, with the participants joining via their laptop, cell phone or tablet device (and MR teams also on the call). 

So as online and offline research jostle for position, let’s examine how, compared to on-site focus groups, the digital alternative can lead to even more powerful nuggets of qualitative insights that help brands bring their A game. 

And how can you meet some of the challenges that taking things digital can present? 

Emotional dynamic  

Getting the most out of the people who have given up their time to take part has to be top of the focus group wish list. 

But not everyone is full of confidence when it comes to talking in front of other people. Certain personalities find the group dynamic a tad off putting, even.  

However non-threatening and welcoming an in-person research facility, if there are stronger personalities in the group these can make the less confident less willing to speak up – particularly about sensitive or personal topics. 

So, here’s where digital magic comes in. Taking part in a focus group via a screen gives respondents more distance. Yes, we’re talking geographical distance. But we also mean emotional distance where people enjoy some perceived anonymity. 

And away from the social constructs of an in-person encounter, many will feel less inhibited when it comes to giving honest responses. As the moderator’s goal is to hear from everyone, and to elicit as many different opinions as possible, that leads to a more even spread of inputs. 

One other obvious point? Online participants get to stay at home, sitting at their kitchen counter on their laptop or on their couch with a mobile device. There’s an argument that a safe, familiar and comfortable environment encourages people to speak more freely and openly. 

Of course, there can also definitely be more distractions at home. Kids can still need urgent attention. Dogs can still bark loudly. Delivery drivers can keep ringing the doorbell, interrupting a respondent’s train of thought and seeing them dart away from their screen for a moment. 

Groupthink effect 

Let’s return to those stronger personalities for a moment. 

Say a particularly vocal respondent expresses an opinion in a face-to-face focus group. Because of social acceptance norms the rest of the group may well nod along, taking it on as their view too. 

It’s human nature to be influenced (or even intimidated) by more forceful personalities. 

That’s groupthink, and the danger is that it can yield biased results and skewed data during an on-site focus group setting. 

Sure, face-to-face moderators are expert at managing stronger personalities. They also make sure all respondents feel confident enough to speak up, using empathy, encouragement and some serious deep listening skills. 

That doesn’t take the groupthink effect away completely. Although it’s something far less prominent during an online focus group – we have physical distance between respondents to thank for that. 

At-home tech issues  

Relying on home-based participants to have proper internet connectivity, compatible devices and tech that doesn’t need to be upgraded ready for their digital focus group? It can be a tall order. 

Even the best prepared research team will need to reach for their IT helpdesk caps now and then. Yes, even if they made sure to run tech checks with everyone before the session started.  

Clearly, on-site focus groups don’t have those potential tech headaches. Everyone’s in the same space, after all. 

Using generic web conferencing platforms for digital focus groups can involve plenty of logistics prep, not to mention back-office to-dos. 

Which is why it’s smarter to choose a professional digital focus group software specifically designed to meet researcher needs. 

At Forsta, we’re happy to say that our revamped online focus groups tool – InterVu – is designed specifically for the research professional. And that means it’s also designed specifically for the respondent, too. 

One reason? It’s 100% browser based. There’s nothing to download, and no apps or plugins to install – and it frees you up to focus on making the most of each session. 

Internet instability is a thing when it comes to people taking part in digital focus groups. Buffering, lag times and crashing aren’t exactly conducive to fluent, fluid discussions as people won’t be able to help speaking over one another. 

Even in low bandwidth modes, InterVu boasts seamless connectivity. So, when it comes to melting away your MR team’s hassle or respondents’ tech problems, it’s all golden. 

And even if there are issues, you still won’t need to break a sweat. A live online technician waits in the wings for the duration of every meeting to help if you need quick expert support. 

Ease of recruiting  

Need to conduct marketing research for a niche product or service?  

If criteria for selection is living within traveling distance of the actual facility, this can be a tough gig.  

But online focus groups have allowed researchers to rethink the geographic boundaries. With Forsta InterVu there are none. 

Whether you’re recruiting based on people’s demographic, purchase history or behavior, it’s now far easier to find participants who match your criteria for a digital focus group than if you’re recruiting to gather them in-person. 

That includes hard-to-reach participants, too. Ease of access for remote research boosts your chances of getting people on board who’d been previously hard to sign up. This could be ‘normal’ folks on their couches at home, through to business decision-makers, industry experts and thought leaders who’d long been on your Wishlist. 

The fact that there are few barriers to access means that in percentage terms, more people tend to show up for online groups than they would in-person. The result is an even broader potential range of your sample – and deeper insight all round. 

Immediate shareables 

The on-site session has come to an end and you’re keen to discuss how it went with fellow stakeholders. Good job you took extensive contemporaneous notes, right? The thing is, anything more substantial may take minutes or even hours to produce.  

However, you’ll generally see the goods far quicker with an online focus group.  

Unlike in person groups, specialist tools like InterVu show accurate (and editable) transcripts immediately after the moderator has clicked ‘end’ on the session – perfect for sharing important nuggets of feedback with those who count. 

That’s even if the session was in another language – InterVu offers real-time simultaneous translation capabilities, in many languages. 

Those unmissable moments? You’ll be able to timestamp or bookmark them live during the actual group session, then easily transform them into clips ready for a full debrief or presentation. 

Organic discussion 

Here’s the thing: online focus groups can quite easily feel a little ‘flat’.  

Moderators are research superheroes who work hard to make groups feel as dynamic as possible. 

They’re expert at gathering in-person responses, posing follow-up questions and probing for specific insights. 

But they sometimes need an extra hand. A specialist tool like InterVu gives moderators more in their armory to help them create an organic and dynamic discussion.  

Think storytelling, polling, sharing and marking stimuli with online whiteboarding to keep people feeling 100% engaged throughout the session. 

And the InterVu product also includes moderator training as standard. We know this means a higher chance of being able to gather deeper insights through individual narratives. 

Non-verbal insight 

What are people really feeling, and what are they really trying to say? 

Put aside words for a moment. Research suggests that body language could play its part in up to 65% of all communication. 

Gather a group of people in the same place and the non-verbal cues prove to be a rich data source. Involuntary facial expressions that last just a fraction of a second (AKA micro expressions) can’t hide someone’s true emotions. They might even be a more accurate way of showing someone’s attitude and emotional state. 

Eye contact, body posture clues and speed-of-light hand gestures all pack a powerful punch, too. 

It’s a no brainer: face-to-face focus groups have traditionally been the best at giving a nuanced read on how people respond to questions asked – and answers others give. Context counts, too, with the signals a group gives off being a powerful indicator as well as those from an individual. 

This means the digital alternative must seriously up its game to be able to capture the visual clues of in-person research: those non-verbal, non-conscious emotional responses. 

Generic web conferencing platforms may not enable you to zoom in on individual speakers to capture the body language clues your research team needs. 

But with a powerful tool like InterVu, you get to capture the richness and nuances of people gathered in the same space – and their individual responses.  

There’s enhanced audio and video, as it uses the latest Adobe Connect 12 technology. The result is in-depth looks at facial expressions and body language for immediate reactions and direct feedback. 

Cost of hosting 

One of the most frequently asked questions in market research is ‘How can we make the most impact with the budget we have?’ 

So how do remote focus groups beat face-to-face on budget and resource terms? Here are some top plus points to sing about: 

  • No in-person research facility to hire 
  • No hotel rooms to book  
  • No travel or subsistence costs to reimburse for participants 
  • No lost time traveling for researchers or clients (and no transport delays or missed connections) 
  • Less cost to recruit respondents 

Sure, there are fees for using online qualitative software tools. But it’s clear the benefits of doing so far outweigh the costs. 

Team involvement 

Yes, colleagues and clients can travel to an in-person research facility and watch the session play out in a viewing room there. 

But with remote alternatives, do they really want or need to? 

Purpose-built online focus group platforms allow client viewers to sign on and sit in from their desk or home.  

They can do this completely unobserved and far more discreetly than generic web conferencing platforms that they’d need to join and lurk on mute for. 

Gone are the days of being limited by seating numbers at an in-person facility and now far more team members can get involved. This could be their first chance to see or hear the voice of their customer for themselves. 

A virtual back room also gives time and space to chat about issues being raised.  

And Forsta’s InterVu has a private line to the moderator in case you need to give feedback or ask for extra follow-up questions. 

Achieving actionable insights 

In a future-thinking industry like market research, it’s worth asking whether face-to-face or online is better for you.  

Whether the goal of a focus group is to get feedback on a product or service or gather views on how a brand stands out compared to competitors, answer the question on a project-by-project basis. 

You want to understand your audience – their buying behavior, purchase intent or what they think about a product or service – and achieve actionable insight. Our advice is to be strategic in how you make your choice. 

It’s clear that online focus groups are well and truly evolving. Can these next-gen research-specific platforms provide all the benefits of a face-to-face focus group, but with extra engagement and deeper insights than you might get from the traditional alternative? 

We’ve dived into the minds of the customers, and the signs look good. 

How Forsta can help 

Get in touch with us to see the full range of powerful features Forsta’s InterVu can bring to your online focus groups – creating more actionable insight than you thought possible.  


Related stories


Supercharge your business: drive local traffic

Supercharge your business: drive local traffic Join Rio SEO’s Ryan Weber and Tyler Ludwig to discover how Rio SEO’s Local Pages help you dominate local search and convert online searches into real-world customers. We’ll cover best practices for your website locators (store/dealer/agent locators), state pages, city pages, hyperlocal pages, and specialty pages that drive traffic […]

Read more
Supercharge your business: drive local traffic

Crushing your CAC: Maximize click-buy-repeat

Crushing your CAC: Maximize click-buy-repeat Webinar synopsis:Are soaring customer acquisition costs shackling your financial potential? Join Zack Hamilton as he shares battle-tested strategies to slash your customer acquisition costs by optimizing your customer’s journey at every touchpoint. Learn how to: Related resources

Read more
Crushing your CAC: Maximize click-buy-repeat

From click to collect: Turbocharging revenue with digital experiences

From click to collect: Turbocharging revenue with digital experiences From click to collect: Turbocharging revenue with digital experiences Digital experiences are the linchpin of customer journeys, influencing retention, acquisition –and of course, revenue. Get the tools and knowledge your brand needs to elevate customer satisfaction, break down organizational barriers, optimize for target segments, and leverage […]

Read more
From click to collect: Turbocharging revenue with digital experiences

Learn more about our industry leading platform


Get industry insights that matter,
delivered direct to your inbox

We collect this information to send you free content, offers, and product updates. Visit our recently updated privacy policy for details on how we protect and manage your submitted data.