POSTED BY: | December 16, 2020

For us at SMARI, the current pandemic has had a dramatic impact on some of the things we do and has forced us to change our methods for capturing qualitative feedback.

Throughout my 25-year career in market research, traditional, in-person focus groups have always had their place as a highly effective means of capturing attitudes, opinions and perspectives from a range of audiences. These sessions have been a cornerstone for gathering emotionally laded insights from individuals for decades.

From a professional moderator’s perspective, in-person focus groups were always exciting and invigorating. They are a “live performance” that require experience, preparation and the ability to anticipate and respond to the unexpected. Trust me, moderating these sessions is not for the faint of heart.

The COVID pandemic; however, has changed all of that. All in-person research has been halted. Now, nine months and close to 100 online focus groups later, we’re beginning to ask ourselves whether or not we’ll need to conduct in-person focus groups ever again.

And, while SMARI has been conducting online focus groups for over a decade, they have never been the primary or solely focused methodology – they were simply another arrow in our quiver.

Given the current state of affairs, online focus groups are the ideal mechanism for capturing substantive group feedback. These sessions allow for a similar free-flowing conversation as found with in-person discussions.

This is a group discussion led by two trained SMARI moderators, held 100% online. In our chat based sessions, there is no audio or video needed. Individuals participate by simply typing out their answers to our questions.  Of course we have video options that are available as well, for when it’s important to observe the participants physical reactions, emotions and/or body language.

While online focus group sessions do not allow individuals to observe the research sessions in-person and lack the traditional “backroom” experience, our online focus groups allow client observers to interact with the moderating team in real-time, providing a much more engaging experience overall.

In addition, we have found participation rates for online group sessions to surpass what we had experienced previously with traditional in-person research. Recruiting is often easier as many of the barriers to participation have been removed. The ability to join in the discussion from the participant’s home is simply far more convenient.

SMARI has utilized online focus groups across numerous consumer and B2B industries, including business leadership and C-Suite professionals. Regardless of the audience type or industry, we have found no meaningful differences in the quality of insights gathered during online focus groups, as compared to traditional in-person sessions.


Some additional benefits include:

Broad geographic coverage: Includes participants across a complete service area, avoiding any community bias based on in-person facility locations.

Anonymity of participants: Individual responses are captured simultaneously from all participants and then explored collectively. This ensures individual dispositions are realized prior to group dynamics taking effect.

Cost effective: Eliminates cost of moderator/client travel, facility rentals, videotaping, typed transcriptions, supporting amenities, cost, etc.

Ability to incorporate graphics/visuals: For product/promotion/advertising concept evaluation.

Provision for client real-time viewing and moderator interaction: Clients can log on to the discussion from multiple locations via secure links and interact throughout the discussion with both of the SMARI moderators.

Complete verbatim transcriptions: Because the discussions are captured in real time, an edited transcript can be provided within 24-48 hours.

Speed: The online group discussions can be recruited and hosted in a shorter timeframe, conducted simultaneously and summarized quickly. This can reduce field time compared to in-person discussions.

Private Message: Moderators can privately message certain respondents to ask more detailed, probing questions without taking the entire group off track.

Quantity: Because the need for “group management” is reduced in the online platform, more participants can take part. While an in-person group is often comprised of approximately 10 individuals, the online platform can accommodate upwards of 12-16 participants. 

Safety: The virtual format allows us to conduct focus group sessions with individuals from the privacy and safety of their own homes. There is no need to meet in an office building or research facility – all of these insights can be captured online. This eases recruiting barriers and increases participation rates allowing consumers to participate with comfort and confidence.

At the end of the day – the numerous benefits and ease of implementation of online focus groups makes this methodology the clear, preferred choice for group qualitative feedback – regardless of the current pandemic environment. Whether we revert back to traditional, in-person sessions in the future remains to be seen.

It’s hard to argue against the success the online path has provided to us and our clients.