Can virtual groups replace focus groups?

  • 29 March 2019
  • Written by: Tommaso Conte

by Tommaso Conte, Bat Radar Organizational Development and Change Advisor

Can virtual groups replace focus groups?

Or: Can social media constitute an analytical and interpretative resource to understand consumer’s choices?

Focus groups vs virtual groups

The focus group, or discussion group, is a data collection technique, developed by R. K. Merton, in the early 1940s. It is a qualitative technique of detecting opinions and attitudes, used in social science research, in which a group of people is invited to discuss the topic of investigation. The main added value of the focus groups lies in the possibility of evaluating not only the individual with his individuality, but the group in its unitary dimension, allowing the analysis of the dynamics of interaction that develop within it.

These phenomena are at the basis of more complex processes, such as influence, social desirability, polarization and rivalry. The focus group has its center of action precisely in these dynamics. Marketing strategies are increasingly based on group analysis rather than individual analysis. For what reason? Why are group dynamics becoming more important, or at least more relevant, than the assessments and perceptions of individual consumers?

The answer lies in reading the historical and social period in which we live. Although at a psychological level there is an increase in feelings and attitudes of individuality, all of us are increasingly involved in groups. From society to the family, from organization to work teams, to virtual groups, opportunities for solitude are rare. Almost all our choices, therefore also those of purchase and consumption, are also based on the dynamics of interaction that we establish in the groups in which we are inserted. No one is willing to renounce his individuality but it is not possible to deny that our very identity is the fruit of both personal dispositions and social and therefore group constructions. This trend is further confirmed in the existence of virtual groups. The dizzying development of social media has in fact accentuated and accelerated this phenomenon, allowing both a rapid construction of groups and an easy movement to another or to its disintegration. Virtual groups have the characteristic of being, by their nature, thematized. Although it is possible, and it happens, that a virtual group is constituted in a random and atipical way, the formation of groups by categories of interest, quality or training is much more frequent.

It would be logical, in light of all this, to think that, given the considerable proliferation of thematic groups in the virtual world, it becomes superfluous to devise and establish, within a research, focus groups (offline). The advantage would consist in a drastic reduction of time and costs: of the personnel engaged in these activities, of the materials and services used, of research and selection of the participants and so on. The online world would allow a rapid and inexpensive selection of the participants, a spontaneous adhesion.

Yet numerous studies and practical cases have shown that the analysis of virtual groups is not so simple. Why?

If from the practical point of view there do not seem to be disadvantages, the negative side of the use of such groups is shown when analyzing, from the psychological point of view, the interactions, the nature and the quality of the discussions that take place in such groups. If, as was initially described, group interactions are at the base of many of our choices, it is clear that the observation and analysis of these have a fundamental value, neglected in the case of virtual groups. In a face to face context, in fact, the interaction between people assumes the connotations of the true behavior implemented by the subjects in real contexts. Each participant, in a focus group, lives and makes the arguments of others their own, and is sensitive to the ways in which these are proposed. In turn, it reacts, with a very specific behavioral pattern that contributes to reinvigorating these arguments, or to modify or refute them. In a virtual context this type of interaction is very limited: comments and arguments from other users are read and watched in passing, while one is engaged in other activities, while thinking about something else. Furthermore, the connection level with real behavior is very low.

In the virtual world, in fact, it is much easier and easier to act differently from what we really are, and in the same way it is easy to exhibit choices, arguments, attitudes and behaviors that do not correspond to our reality. Online, the risk of exhibiting an unauthentic identity is very high.

We must also consider that in the virtual world there is also a very high possibility that phenomena such as influence and social desirability may be constituted: they are phenomena for which we tend to exhibit behavior or show an attitude that does not belong to us, or because they are influenced by the majority or because we have the possibility to more easily provide answers considered more socially acceptable than others: this means that people tend to behave more by exhibiting their “ideal ego”, that is to seem more normal and adequate to the norm.

The results of research on these types of groups have the great risk of being therefore unreliable, as they do not correspond to the true decision-making process, to the true attitude and behavior of the subject.

Another aspect to consider is non-verbal behavior: live, much of the information capacity of the subjects, depends not on what they explicitly declare, but on the tone of the voice, facial expressions and body language. The observation of these aspects makes it possible to evaluate the intensity (in terms of conviction or unlike fiction) of the thesis that the subject supports, the nature of the relationships that arise within the group and at the same time the emotional reaction to a idea or a product.

In conclusion, what emerges is that the complexity of group dynamics is not present in virtual groups, in comments and likes on social media. This complexity is what contributes to determining our identity and is therefore not negligible in qualitative, market or marketing research. It is not being argued here that virtual groups are not a good research tool, instead is supported the need to use them with caution, with very specific methods and paying attention to all the psychological and social components that determine our perceptions, attitudes, behaviors and our choices.


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