The Difference Between Online Communities and Focus Groups

By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

The title is meant to be a bit clever. I am not talking about actual focus groups; I am referring to the term. I have always suspected that focus group was used to refer to any casual, open-ended, small sample, non-projectable research method. And, I always thought that those who used the term this way were misinformed. Well, I have to throw in the towel. I have no better authority than the Pew Research Center.

Its recent project exploring teens, their use of social media, and their attitudes to on-line privacy has generated a good deal of buzz in the press. It merits an extended discussion in the future. But, what caught my eye was the research method. There was a phone survey, twenty-four focus groups conducted in four markets, and "two online focus groups...conducted as an asynchronous threaded discussion over three days using an online platform, and the participants were asked to log in twice per day."

This is what we at C+R Research call a short-term online community. To be sure, we conduct focus groups. We may even conduct focus groups online. But, we are careful to distinguish between the two methods -- focus groups and communities. We believe each has its strengths that make each appropriate to particular situations and sets of issues.

  • Focus Groups are great when consumers need to be pressed on their reactions by the give-and-take of face-to-face interaction. This is true when it is important to assess how emotionally committed they are in their reactions to something such as a new product concept.

  • Online communities make it easier for consumers to describe their behavior and feelings at length, often in a nurturing, nonthreatening environment. So, when it is important to explore the behavior of consumers and their emotional involvement in that behavior, online communities are just the ticket. When I want to know the needs that drive category usage and explore the gaps, an online community is a good place to start.

That is why experience is so important. When the marketing manager says, "We need to do focus groups," he/she probably means we need to collect information in a way that isn't a survey. It is the experienced qualitative researcher, familiar with a range of methods and categories, who can determine whether those "focus groups" should be online communities, individual interviews, ethnographies, in-store observations, or, yes, focus groups.