Hold Your Next Focus Group Online

Ironically, the Internet provides the perfect answer to a common marketing problem faced by Web start-ups: What to do when you have only generated a handful of customers spread all over the world, and you need to talk to them in detail about their experiences with your product.

The standard marketing toolbox contains no solutions. A focus group won’t work since there’s no city where enough respondents are concentrated to justify a face-to-face meeting. A survey won’t work since there aren’t enough prospects to provide a statistically reliable result, even by phone.

The answer is an online focus group.

New technology allows a small number of respondents to be interviewed in detail, at a time convenient to several time zones, and with a complete transcript available instantly. And the cost is no more than a standard focus group; less, in fact, when you consider the savings in travel, lodging and other expenses.

My company, Cybuy, conducted an online focus group last month with great results. We wanted to ask our 200 customers in the United States about their satisfaction with the Cybuy purchase process. What did they like about our offer? Did they receive their products on time? What would they tell their friends? We wanted to know everything.

We engaged Harris Interactive, Rochester, NY, which recommended an online research tool called iTracks. (iTracks has a number of competitors, including Greenfield Online, Strategic Focus and W3Resources, each with different features that suit different needs.)

The first step was to prepare the discussion guide. Since our inquiry was about the customer experience, the approach was obvious: Walk them through the Cybuy process, step by step, and ask what they liked and didn’t like about each element.

The next step was to invite the prospects, and here’s where we made an embarrassing mistake. Harris composed a polite letter, explaining that we wanted them to participate for two hours on a certain date and offering a small incentive. But we wanted the invitation to come from Cybuy so our buyers would not think it was spam from an unknown company when it arrived in their in boxes. So we sent it out from Cybuy to the 200 buyers and were pleased to receive 13 acceptances. Regrettably, we also received a couple of complaints. We had sent the note to the entire group list – meaning the entire e-mail list was visible to each recipient – instead of using the blind carbon-copy technique. Weeks later, I still feel guilty for not having better protected my customers’ privacy.

The invitations went out on a Friday, and the group was set for 9 p.m to 11 p.m. on the following Tuesday. Participants received a special password and were given instructions for logging onto the iTracks site. We included as many as 15 Cybuy colleagues, each of whom was preregistered with a user name and password. So people from marketing, merchandising, our agency, operations, customer service and even IT were able to commune with our buyers and pose their own questions during the session.

The online group technology allows the respondents to type in their answers chat-room style, while the moderator keeps the conversation moving. We marketers could lurk invisibly, and while we could see what everyone was saying, the respondents could only view comments from themselves, other participants and the moderator. The lines showed up in different colors, so we could easily distinguish respondents, the moderator and observers as the lines scrolled by.

Another feature of the technology is that it includes a space on the participant’s screen for demos, survey questions, illustrations and other visual material. As the discussion opened, our moderator introduced herself and invited the group to fill out a survey posted on the “white board.” And as she walked the respondents through our buying process, she posted screenshots as samples.

The respondents told us plenty, and it was information we could act on the very next day. One of the group members, to our horror, told the others the URL where they could go to get more of our best offer – a hot product priced well below market value. This was supposed to be a short-run test. So we moved to disable that URL immediately.

The respondents told us a lot we didn’t know. Gratifyingly, they told us that they loved our buying process. Whew. And they attributed benefits to certain of our features that we weren’t even aware of. For instance, they loved our order form. And they wanted to buy more from us.

The focus groups were a real hit around our office, providing us with much-needed consumer input and a shot in the arm about the potential of our business model. And, it was the Internet that provided us with the tools to conduct the groups fast, cheap and with great results.

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