Remote Vs. In Person Focus Groups: Is One Better Than the Other?

There’s no question COVID has changed the world of work. One of the most obvious shifts is the significant number of people who continue to work remotely at least part of the time. According to a recent McKinsey study, upwards of 25% of workforces in advanced economies work from home between three and five days a week — representing four to five times more remote work than in pre-pandemic days.

The qualitative market research workforce is no exception. Not only are more researchers working from home, but they’re doing more focus groups and interviews remotely as well. Research from Take Note, an interview transcription service, tells us that around 93% of market researchers are using online and video focus groups more often than they were three years ago. Which makes complete sense. During the pandemic lock-down days, market researchers were forced by necessity to move their studies to online platforms like Zoom.

The question now is: will focus groups continue to be conducted remotely — and should they? The answer to the first part of that question is, without a doubt, yes. The answer to the second part, however, calls for a deeper exploration of the upsides and downsides of virtual interviews and focus groups. So let’s dive in.

Jettison the Jetlag

Clearly, the most compelling advantages of remote research studies are convenience and flexibility — for all parties involved. With a virtual group or interview, there’s no need for the respondents, moderator, or client to travel, when all you have to do is pull up a chair and turn on a computer. While avoiding airport hassles and jetlag, clients can still view remote focus groups and interviews behind the scenes and provide feedback or direction to moderators in real-time. Less travel time also means lower costs for the client — with no plane tickets to purchase, cars to rent, hotel rooms to reserve, or per diems to dole out.

Remote interviews and focus groups also make it easier to reach and attract a wider geographic range of respondents while also simplifying the scheduling (and field managers love that). For instance, we found it much easier to get a larger size of respondents for an online group — easily finding 50, when we were originally targeting just 30.

Distraction-Free Zone

Remote interviews and focus groups can also provide a more distraction-free setting that allows both respondents and moderators to stay focused on the topic at hand. After all, there are no windows to stare out of, no thermostats blasting freezing air, no neighbor in the next seat to annoy you with the weird way they suck their teeth.

That being said, online respondents can also get distracted by what’s going on around them at home — a toddler crying, a dog barking, a delivery person knocking. So even with remote groups, it’s important to minimize disruptions as much as possible by making sure respondents have set aside the dedicated time and space to focus solely on the discussion.

Remote or In Person? Great Question.

For pure practicalities, we find remote interview and focus groups a great option when respondents are scattered across multiple states. Virtual platforms are particularly well suited for our B2B respondents, including software engineers, technologists, and clinicians who are comfortable with online meetings. Offering a remote option can also make it easier and faster to replace respondents on the fly when one doesn’t show or drops out.

We find that remote interviews are ideal for respondents who prefer to retain their anonymity, since they don’t have to reveal their face or name. However, when the topic being discussed is of a sensitive nature, an in-person moderator who displays empathy, compassion, and strong listening skills can be more effective than a talking head inside a square on a screen.

 Consider the Respondent

Remote platforms may be the preferred option for one-on-one interviews that require drilling down into complex subjects with high-level professionals who have incredibly busy schedules and limited time. For example, we typically conduct our interviews with physicians and clinicians online, and find the remote set-up works best for discussing complicated medical procedures, products, and research that require the focused attention of moderator and respondent alike.

On the other hand, certain consumer respondents — such as older patients — seem more comfortable with in-person settings. These types of groups tend to respond better to the reassuring physical presence of a skilled moderator who can guide the discussion with compassion and care.

For respondents, like our hypothetical older patients, an in-person setting may also make them feel more relaxed and at ease. While a screen can create a sense of distance and remoteness, in-person groups and interviews may feel less formal and structured. Respondents who are inclined to give truncated answers in a virtual setting like Zoom may be willing to talk more freely and openly in person. This in turn can further the conversation and lead to deeper insights. It can also be easier for moderators to see and read respondents’ facial expressions and body language in person versus online, which can provide additional shading, insight, and guidance in steering the conversation.

Controlling the Group Dynamic

It’s also important to consider the group dynamic of the respondents participating in the study. As any moderator can tell you, there’s generally one or two people in every group who tend to dominate the discussion, while others may be too intimidated to contribute and thus fade into the background. You may also have respondents whose strong, outspoken emotional reactions overly influence the responses of other participants. Every group dynamic is different, and it’s up to the moderator to make sure one single person isn’t monopolizing or skewing the conversation.

To that end, moderators will want to consider which platform puts them in the best position to steer the group dynamics in order to get the most complete, in-depth, and representative insights from all respondents. Some moderators feel they’re better able to do this in person, while others may find a virtual group (with less interplay between the respondents and access to a mute button) allows them to more easily exercise control and make sure everyone has a say.

Testing Concepts and Technical Know-How

In our experience, in-person settings often work best when testing messaging, concepts, and creative visuals. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for having a physical board or document to put in front of person, without the barrier of a screen. That’s not to say you can’t present concepts online (we’ve done our fair share of that as well), but we find we often get more extensive and genuine responses when we do this work in person.

When deciding on remote vs. in-person, it’s also a good idea to consider the technical know-how and comfort levels of the respondents when it comes to remote platforms like Zoom. The last thing you want is a flustered respondent who can’t get their mic to work or figure out how to turn on their camera.

The Final Verdict? Be Good at Both.

So back to our original question. Yes, we believe that remote focus groups and interviews are here to stay, and that’s a good thing. Virtual platforms can make it easier and more cost-effective for researchers and clients to find, reach, and recruit a wider range of respondents. Given the challenges around recruitment, any advantage is welcome.

But we also believe there is still a time, place, and need for in-person research studies — and that there will continue to be so. So rather than picking one over the other, we recommend seeking out research partners who embrace and excel at both. Your research partner should also understand which option will generate the best results and insights based on the topic, the respondents, and the client’s goals, and make recommendations accordingly.

We’d love to talk remote vs. in-person with you to see what your experience has been. Reach out to continue the conversation.