The focus group industry has gone through some major changes over the past thirty years, but none can match the impact of videoconferencing focus group sessions. While videoconferencing is still a big unknown to many clients, facilities and moderators, one only has to look at what has happened in the past 12-18 months to identify it as a significant trend. Videoconferencing of focus groups is here to stay, and it should grow dramatically over the next one to three years. Whereas the best available evidence suggests that less than 3% of all focus groups are videoconferenced today, by the year 2000, it would not be surprising to see this number well in excess of thirty percent, and perhaps as high as half of all groups.
Videoconferencing of focus groups is simply the broadcasting of the sessions to a remote facility (often the client offices) where people observe the proceedings live over a television monitor in their offices or other local receiving sites, without having to travel to the groups to watch from behind the one-way mirror. With current technology, the clients observing from afar can move the camera for an isolated view of individual members of the group or at the moderator, or they have a view the entire group together. They can also communicate with the moderator during the groups via telephone hookup to the local receiving facility, or by fax.
While there is a range of costs based on varied scenarios, on average, the costs to execute a videoconferenced focus group ranges from $1,200 to $1,400 per session.
At present, there are two major players in the industry, FocusVision and Group Net. Others are trying to establish a foothold. Videoconferencing of focus groups began as an experiment in 1991 with three facilities and a handful of clients testing this new technology. By 1993 there were 17 facilities with video capabilities and approximately 700 groups were conducted using this approach. At the present time, some 50 facilities have videoconferencing capabilities and more are opening each month. Further, in 1995, there were approximately 3,000 groups conducted by videoconferencing, and the estimates for 1996 suggest this will grow significantly.
The Advantages Of VideoconferencingVideoconferencing of focus groups offers several very significant advantages which will drive the technology's aggressive growth in the coming years. There are also some important disadvantages to address if the technology is to achieve its potential.
The most important advantages of this technique are:
- Client organizations save money using videoconferencing, as travel costs are significantly reduced (or eliminated) since it is possible to observe the sessions from the client office or other viewing facility. Currently, it appears that at least half the groups are conducted with no client representation on site and the balance generally have only one or two people. This is in contrast to the four-six people who often travel from city to city to observe the groups from behind the one-way mirror.
- More people are involved in the focus group process while it is happening. While videotaping of groups has been common practice for several years, experience indicates that few people will take the time to watch the tapes after the groups have happened. However, with videoconferencing, several people from the client and/or agency can observe the proceedings live and even have a chance to communicate with the moderator to ensure that the right information is being explored during the sessions.
- Better representation from the target audience. Many organizations tend to favor markets for focus groups that are very close to the home office because they reduce travel time and expense. With videoconferencing, a large variety of markets, distant and near, can be accessed without spending time and money traveling.
- More groups may mean more learning. Since the total cost per videoconferenced group can be less than standard groups, companies can conduct additional sessions to more fully explore topics that could not be addressed with the traditional number of groups.
Disadvantages Of VideoconferencingThere are several important disadvantages of videoconferencing focus groups, which, if not addressed, can seriously affect the value of the research which is conducted. These include:
- The technique makes communication between the moderator and the client much more difficult and less effective. This is because the "client" is often hundreds of miles away, watching the group on a TV monitor, rather than in the backroom. Therefore, it is necessary for clients to fax or telephone messages to the moderator. The exception is the situation where clients send one or two people to travel with the moderator to serve as a communications link between facility and those viewing in the home office. In either case, the moderator does not have the same ability to go face-to-face with the key decision-makers in the client organization to address issues raised during the group.
- Watching a focus group on a television screen is not the same as observing from behind the one-way mirror. The backroom at a focus facility has a different feel than a videoconferencing viewing room. And watching the proceedings from behind a large one-way mirror isn't the same as viewing it on a 27" to 32" television screen. The net result is often a very different attention span and concentration level of the viewers, one that can make it more difficult to pick up nuances from the discussions, observe key non-verbal behavior and feel the atmosphere in the room.
- Videoconferencing of groups makes it much more difficult for a client and moderator to develop the rapport so they can function effectively as a research team. Most moderators will agree that some of the most important work that happens in a focus group research program happens before or after the sessions occur as a result of discussions between client and moderator. With the clients many miles away and communications very structured in pre- and post-group videoconference sessions, the ability to develop these important relationships is minimized. As a result, some of the intangible benefits of the traditional focus group process are not realized.
Maximizing EffectivenessWhile it is impossible to overcome all the disadvantages associated with videoconferencing of focus groups, client organizations can take steps to neutralize the problems and therefore produce more effective research: First, include the "home" market as one of the cities (ideally the first) where groups are held whenever possible. This enables interested parties in the headquarters operation to attend some groups without having to travel. And it should help the client personnel get more out of groups they observe via videoconferencing, as they will have some sense of the atmosphere in the room based on their initial exposure from the groups they attended. Second, the environment in the home viewing area should be set up in such a way that it duplicates as closely as possible the experience behind the one-way mirror at the local focus group facility. Specifically, this involves:
Send one or two key client representatives to the groups in each location to serve as a liaison with the moderator, and to function as the "voice of the client" on premises. It is important that these be people who are decision-makers relative to the project, rather than simply low level employees who function as messengers between the remote location and the moderator. The on-site client personnel should be the link between the remote location and the facility, with arrangements made with the moderator for communications with the backroom during the groups (via notes or face-to-face meetings, depending on the desires of the moderator).
- Establishing "rules" for remote viewing that strongly discourage observers from casual watching of the sessions including going in and out of the observation room during the groups to handle other matters.
- Serving refreshments to the observers, as would be done in a normal backroom environment.
- Having large (30"+) monitors for people to watch the groups, so they can get as close to the situation as possible.
- Darkening the room, as would be the case in a backroom situation, to encourage the observers to focus on the group proceedings.
As with traditional focus groups, establish firm guidelines and controls to limit the amount of backroom intervention during the groups. If the moderator is qualified and has been well briefed, inputs from the backroom during the groups should be very limited, and contained to only the most essential topics, rather than "nice to know" subjects which are a curiosity of an observer.
Continued GrowthI believe that videoconferencing of focus groups will continue to grow at a very fast pace over the next several years. To take advantage of this new technology while retaining the quality of the work, researchers must plan appropriately to help neutralize the problems associated with this technique. If this is accomplished, then clients should be able to reap many important benefits from the new technology.