The Pros and Cons of Online Focus Groups

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If you’re reading this, you may be thinking about whether or not to provide an online focus group.  You may be wondering whether moving from the traditional focus group and taking it online is a good move.  Keep reading!

Online focus groups allow for back and forth conversations with audiences of any size depending on the moderating company.

Questions are asked via participant discussion or survey to get feedback on concepts or ideas or improve services and products.  Either way, you choose, algorithms are used to synthesize data, so you get the insights you’re seeking.

Online focus groups are a less expensive way to engage consumers to get faster and, sometimes more honest, insights than traditional methods. 

Keep reading, and I’ll give you a brief history of traditional focus groups, reasons people want to participate in online focus groups, and the pros and cons of online focus groups. 

History of Traditional Focus Groups

According to, focus groups began in 1937 at Princeton University.  Their purpose was to focus on messages like war propaganda films during World War II.  The US government used focus groups to study how military propaganda films impacted Americans.  The purpose was to discover what messages were most effective in increasing support for the war.

Nielsen Media Research (The Nielsen Ratings, as you may know them) also came into prominence in the late 1930s, culminating in the Nielsen Radio index in 1942 and then moving to television in 1950.  This method of measuring audiences and their TV watching habits became the leading source of information for the television industry.

In this vein, focus groups rose in popularity to allow businesses to gather consumers’ ideas, opinions, and beliefs (called qualitative research) about products and services and then use them to strategize and develop their marketing plan when determining what to bring to market. Today the global market research industry is worth $76 billion, with the US garnering 44% of that. 

Traditional focus groups are:

  • In-person small-group discussions led by a trained leader. 
  • They are qualitative – asking nondirective, open-ended questions.
  • Used to get opinions on specific topics and help businesses determine how to create and launch products and services.
  • Carefully orchestrated to create an environment in which people feel free to speak openly.  Participants are encouraged to express their opinions.

Why do people participate in Focus Groups?

People want to participate in focus groups, traditional or online, for a few reasons:

  1. They want to earn extra money.  People who participate in focus groups are paid cash and rewards as an incentive to participate depending on the focus group and survey. 
  2. They want to give their opinion!  It’s not everyday companies ask consumers to provide their views, and many will take the opportunity to do so!
  3. They genuinely want to help bring new ideas to market.

What is an online Focus Group?

There are two different kinds of online focus groups:

  1. There are online focus groups, like traditional focus groups, that use a moderator.  However, participants come online at the same time to discuss a particular research topic.  Unlike one-to-one interviewing, online focus groups allow participants to talk with and influence each other.
  2. The other kind of online focus group also allows businesses to gather consumer feedback, but rather than using a discussion group format with a moderator; it uses a survey style.  This style enables consumers to answer questions online in exchange for cash and rewards.

The Pros and Cons of Online Focus Groups

There are pros and cons to online focus groups.  Businesses can choose whether online will give them the information they need. Consumers can decide if being part of an online group works for them. 


  • Time required – If people don’t have a lot of time to attend a focus group, the online experience allows them to participate in less time and from any location using their computers or smartphones.
  • Location – If people live in an area that is harder to reach for in-person groups, online focus groups open the opportunity for companies to work with them regardless.  It gives participants the chance to represent people who may not be given a voice because of where they live.
  • More thorough insights – There is a belief in the focus group industry that your respondents will be more comfortable at home or a location of their choice and will give more open and honest responses.  Sometimes being in a group, in person, can be intimidating, and they might say less in that setting.
  • Survey style and anonymity – Nothing allows people to say what they feel and speak their mind like being anonymous.
  • Cost-Effectiveness – Without bringing people together and paying for space, online focus groups cost less for moderating companies.


  • Technology Breakdowns – Technology can crash or have issues in the middle of a group or survey session.
  • Proper Technology – Participants must have the appropriate technology – a computer, a webcam if needed, and the correct browser for the group. 
  • Lack of human interaction – Especially for survey-style focus groups, the lack of interaction and discussion between participants can diminish the honesty and depth of the answers given.

Final Thought

Online focus groups contribute to people and society in many ways.  They enable businesses to determine their strategies for bringing products and services to market and offer a way for consumers to participate and even earn rewards in what is sold and consumed.

If you’re thinking about taking your focus group(s) online, give it a try!  The pros are pretty excellent, and now that you have an idea of the cons, you can prepare to mitigate them.

Related questions:

How many people should be in a focus group?

In an online focus group, 3 to 6 people are the ideal sample size. (An in-depth interview, which can also be conducted online, is a different form of research, where a moderator leads a discussion with just one participant). Groups will last anywhere from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours.

Are online focus groups Anonymous?

They provide a certain level of anonymity. Online focus groups tend to offer more anonymous information than in-person groups, but all focus groups allow for a certain level of privacy. Most people don’t know each other in a group, allowing people to provide honest answers and open responses.

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