Ask Nettie: Focus Online

SAN FRANCISCO (07/04/2000) - Q. We've conducted a few face-to-face focus groups in the past, but we're thinking of trying to do some focus groups and marketing research online. We've tried to do some things ourselves, such as surveys in pop-up windows, with mixed results. What kind of information can you glean from online groups? Should we turn to regular research firms or are there specialists?

A.Online research is a viable way to get feedback about your site from Jane Q.

Public. It lends itself well to certain types of data gathering, like testing how visitors use, or don't use, your navigation. It's also a better way to get people to participate, and you'll get results faster, too. Sometimes you can walk away with the results on the same day.

But don't expect too much of a cost savings over brick-and-mortar equivalents, as both online and offline research firms charge the same for their expertise.

You will save on hidden expenses that aren't part of the fee, however, such as not having to fly your whole team to the cities where the groups are being conducted. What's important to know is that there is a huge spectrum of what is loosely called online research, from companies that allow for collaboration between participants through text-based chat to firms that only gather information on an individual basis.

The latter approach worked well for KozyHome.com in Chicago, Ill. Not even a year old, the company is now a veteran of market research. Before it opened its retail-furniture site for business in January, it conducted live, in-person focus groups to test its home-furnishings picks. After the site was up for a while, it attempted to do some homegrown research by asking friends, family and top customers to fill out a word document with some questions about navigation.

While it did get some good feedback from its do-it-yourself survey, the turnout was low.

"It was the poor man's version of what we ultimately wanted to do," said Dave Taraboletti, VP of operations, planning and marketing. When its cash pool grew, KozyHome decided to spend money on research conducted by Vividence in San Mateo, Calif. KozyHome looked at a number of companies and picked Vividence partly because its fee was right - about $30,000. Vividence helped KozyHome conduct a study using 500 people across the country.

Each took a tour of the furniture site and responded to questions. The results compiled from the session, including comments from the participants and an analysis of their clicks, confirmed a lot of things that the retailer already suspected, such as needing to make a dramatic change to its shopping-cart procedures if it wanted to increase sales. If you opt instead to go the collaborative route, Vroom, based in New York, is one option. The company emulates face-to-face groups by putting people together in a specialized chat room.

A moderator then asks questions, and participants respond by typing in their comments. In this scenario, the company that commissions the research is able to watch what everyone is typing as the discussion is going on and can take away a transcript of the session immediately after it concludes. Charges for these services depend on the number of sessions conducted and the number of people included in each session. Costs start at a few thousand dollars.

Similarly, W3 Resources in Coatesville, Pa., offers a variety of online research, including chat rooms and training for moderators who've never conducted online focus groups.

Greenfield Online, based in Wilton, Ct., also offers specialized chat rooms. In addition, its MindStorm service is a hybrid of chat-based and individual research. A moderator sets up a series of questions and posts them to the Greenfield site, then invites the people who've been picked to participate in the survey to answer the questions. Over a five-day period, the participants can come to the site and offer their input. The fee for this service starts at $13,000. Since all of the companies mentioned are conducting research online, they operate on the assumption that all participants will have PCs in their homes. InterSurvey in Menlo Park, Calif., offers similar services, but provides access to all participants by recruiting WebTV terminals for them to use.

Not all market-research firms consider their online counterparts viable, however. Online sessions aren't as helpful as face-to-face ones because nonverbal communication plays a big role, said Ross King, head of King Research in Pioneer, Ca., which conducts focus groups primarily with technology companies. Among possible solutions for such obstacles are video focus groups, considered by many to be the holy grail of online research.

That technology would allow for each participant to be filmed and the resulting video to be transmitted to the group commissioning the research in real time.

Unfortunately, it will be about five years before such technology is widely available and cheap enough to be widely adopted. In case you're thinking that you can conduct focus groups yourself, we have a recommendation: Don't try this at home. While there are tools available that will let you do anonymous surveys and online polling, such as Greenfield Online's Quicktake.com, the data you'll get from these methods won't be as valuable as data from professional research firms, which carefully screen focus-group candidates and present scientifically prepared results.

The do-it-yourself method makes it extremely difficult to get an accurate representation of customers, let alone reliable results.

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