Magazine article Communication World

Online Options for Focus Group Research

Magazine article Communication World

Online Options for Focus Group Research

Article excerpt

Sometimes Craig Jolley just needs to confirm a hunch. He has at his disposal all the traditional tools of marketing research as customer segment manager for Mead Data Central, the company that provides NEXIS, the online information retrieval service. But to clarify a position or find a basis for that gut instinct, he goes online to get opinions.

Call it a sort of online focus group. Jolley frequents several CompuServe forums to get to know people and identify those who might offer useful perspectives. Then, when a question or issue arises on which he needs feedback, he'll direct a few questions to them.

He calls it the direct approach. "I send E-mail questions to selected individuals, primarily those who I've corresponded with on the forums and who have proved to be knowledgeable about the subject matter I am interested in exploring," Jolley said.

Another strategy he calls the group grope. "I'll post a message in a forum that masks a specific product idea but attempts to solicit feedback regarding the concept." He has used forums as varied as the White House Forum, the Outdoors Forum, the Legal Forum, and the Public Relations and Marketing Forum.

Jolley calls his third use of online research I spy. "I'll lurk around message boards, monitoring conversations that are related to programs, products or services I'm working on. I'll inject comments every now and then to direct the conversation and receive input," he said. Whether for formal research or fun, "lurking" is a common online pastime and one reason electronic bulletin boards are so popular.

"The ability to lurk online and read others' posts is a great complement to the traditional environmental scanning approach available via NEXIS and other methods. It is amazing what people will say in posts that they probably wouldn't say in a formal focus group setting. I think it has something to do with the feeling of anonymity that they feel interacting with their screen," Jolley explained.

Lurking and other online research will not replace scientific methods. "Because the sample size is too small, too polarized -- it includes only those with access to the service -- and not random, it cannot take the place of formal focus group research -- yet," Jolley said. "On the other hand, it does provide a very cost efficient way to gather input from a geographically diverse and eclectic group in a manner impossible by other, traditional methods. …

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