Online vs. In-Person: 8 Tips in Choosing the Ideal Qualitative Methodology


Some may think of in-person focus groups as a thing of the past; online anything is always better… right? Not necessarily. Turns out old dogs can still do the trick in a variety of qualitative scenarios. When group discussion is necessary, the differences between in-person focus groups, online focus groups and online bulletin boards can be the difference in time, money and ultimately the success of your study. Here’s what to consider when choosing the focus group methodology for your qualitative research needs.


Comparing Focus Group Methodology

1. Scheduling

The main difference here is that for in-person focus groups and online focus groups you need to schedule a specific day and time for the group(s) to take place, whereas an online bulletin board can take place 24/7.

2. Duration

You should plan for your in-person focus group and online focus group sessions to take 90 minutes to two hours each. Online bulletin boards are more flexible; they can take place over two to three days and can easily involve multiple time zones.

3. Sharing Views

In an in-person focus group, participants have full interaction with others in the group. There’s some interaction with other participants in online focus groups, and online bulletin boards allow interaction after personally responding to questions yet participants still remain anonymous.

4. Depth

With in-person and online focus groups you get top-of-mind reactions with added depth from probing, but keep in mind that discussion flow and time constraints may prevent participants from answering every question. Online bulletin boards on the other hand allow significant depth because participants have the opportunity to consider questions over a couple of days and can revisit topics. Participants are also required to answer all questions.

5. Client Observation

You have the option of back-room access with in-person focus groups, or video streaming if clients need to be offsite, as well as direct access to the moderator at breaks and some ability to change/add questions during discussion. Online focus groups give you moderator access via confidential posts but limited ability to make changes during discussion. Online bulletin boards allow “back-room” access as well with the ability to chat and communicate directly with the moderator. You can also change/add questions during discussion.

6. Travel

In-person focus groups require travel while both online focus groups and online bulletin boards do not.

7. Number of Participants

You can have eight to 10 participants per group with in-person and eight per group with online focus groups. However, online bulletin boards allow up to 30 participants per board.

8. View of Participants

You’ll be able to observe body language and level of engagement in an in-person focus group. Online focus groups are more limited, however you can see facial expression if web cams are used. With online bulletin boards you have no view of participants.


Focus Group Questions to Ask Yourself

Now that you know what to compare, think about how these considerations may affect your qualitative research plan based on the unique aspects of your study. In general, online methodologies may seem ideal with less travel cost, broader geographic reach and/or more in-depth answers, but there are times when participants need to be in the room with the product they’re evaluating or when the client wants to see body language. The method must fit the study objectives and one method is not likely to fit each and every project.

Ask yourself; is your study:

• Evaluating a website or on a topic related to the Internet, computer technology or high-tech product/service category?
• On a sensitive topic where anonymity is desired?
• Low incidence?
• With an audience where a wide geographic dispersion is required, including rural areas?
• With B2B professionals or others with limited time?
• With teens and/or young adults?
• On a tight budget?
• In need of a fast turnaround?
• One where capturing body language or facial expressions is essential?
• One where hands-on usage is deemed critical?
• So highly confidential that the client cannot risk stimuli being copied by a participant?

With answers to these questions and the comparisons above, it should be much easier to determine the right focus group methodology each and every time.


To learn how our research design, data collection and reporting expertise can help with your qualitative research needs, contact Ironwood Insights Group today.