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To be a good researcher you need to be objective, so please forgive me for looking at the question of how a respondent feels about taking part in an online community instead of a face to face focus group from my point of view. There are several things that make online communities (or MROCs as they are known) far more attractive to me.
I’ve only ever attended two focus groups as a participant and both were unrewarding experiences. One was in a cupboard, which was misleadingly called Meeting Room 3, and was a farce from start to finish as a know-all dominated the whole proceedings. To make it worse the know-all decided to become group spokesman and tried to interpret everything I was saying – and, wrongly in most cases. I think I gave up somewhere in the middle of the session. On the second occasion, a complex new software concept was explained for the group to discuss. The dialogue that followed was vague and really needed reflection rather than quick answers. It was another unsatisfactory session.
I’ve attended a lot of meetings in my time and I’m familiar with discussing business matters and other day to day topics with strangers. However, sharing opinions and thoughts on something that is not familiar territory is different – and, if it’s different for me, it might be worse for those unfamiliar with discussing anything in groups. I am not sure that I am my best when I am shut in a room and ‘forced’ to talk on a subject.
Whilst a focus group may be better to getting my initial reaction to something, an online community offers me the chance to reflect on things and give more considered opinion. If the instant reaction is most important aspect of the research, I can see that a face to face focus group may be better, but generally it is the richness of the content that a community provides that is important. If a spontaneous reaction is important, this can still, of course, be achieved in an online community though. Being able to contribute my thoughts when it suits me means that I can offer much more. Something valuable might go through my head as I am sitting down in the evening which might not arise in the fixed period of a focus group.
A community offers the chance for reflection. It gives me the chance to listen to the opinions of others, reflect on them, question others and pass on well thought out comment. A focus group can achieve this if it is well moderated, but, in a group, people will tend to feel more pressured and not listen to others – I suspect this applies to me just as much as anyone else even though I do not realise it.
Like many people (and increasingly more), I am quite comfortable contributing to forums, social media and other online methods of communication. I’m not a Facebook fanatic by any means, but doing this sort of thing online is so much more convenient. I can contribute in idle moments and take part in a range of activities in a community. I can access the community in the way that suits me and when I want to, offering more when I have time. A focus group simply does not allow this freedom and flexibility.
Finally, when you are part of any group of people together, there is a group dynamic. How that manifests itself will vary from group to group. Readers of our blog will know that I am not short on opinions, but if I am being shouted down in a focus group about something that I am not passionate about, I might just not bother to contribute much. In an online community, no one has this pressure and if someone in the community is picking on another member of the community it is easier to control appropriately.
So, that’s my opinion about online communities. Online communities may not be a total replacement for face to face focus groups in all cases, but they offer several advantages. This blog article only deals with the respondent’s contribution and does not look at other advantages of online communities. These will follow in other blog articles. However, research depends on what the respondents contribute, therefore, these are important considerations.
Want to talk about online communities more? Feel free to send me an email or discuss this topic further.