I have spent a considerable amount of my market research career conducting probably, thousands of focus groups. The focus group is the go-to methodology when it comes to obtaining qualitative data and insights in South African market research. The focus group room is seen as a natural place to illicit respondents’ deepest, darkest secrets ranging from their banking activities to their beauty routines.

I was (and still am) comfortable in all areas of this methodology including moderating, group management and analysis. However, I recently left this methodology behind as I transitioned into the world of online research, specifically the Market Research Online Community or MROC.

Making this transition from traditional to online, I was concerned about a number of things. Would I miss interacting with and moderating respondents? Would I miss watching respondents’ every move? Would I experience some loss of control? Would I be able to get the same kind and amount of information out of respondents? Would I miss this traditional methodology that is considered so beloved by so many?

Despite this apprehension, the more I read about Web 2.0 and online market research, the more I realised that I would be moving ahead of the pack by going in this direction. The whole world is moving towards an online, social media and social networking revolution and by moving towards the online methodology, the market research world is just following suit. And so I wanted in on this exciting methodology.

After experiencing the Market Research Online Community, I realised that Market Research in South Africa really does treat Focus Groups like a security blanket. I have to say that my concerns fell away quicker than a toddler throwing away his security blanket. Researchers and Clients alike cling onto Focus Groups as a preferred method far too much. A brief investigation of what the MROC can offer can certainly bring forth the realisation that there are other innovative options to collect insights with.

The MROC is a private online site that operates much like a social network. Respondents continuously engage in discussions, being alerted on the Homepage or via email when new discussions or comments on their discussion are posted by moderators. Respondents also have their own profile page to personalise and can easily interact with each other and the moderators. The MROC can run from 2 weeks up to several months (or even for more than a year). Discussions are posted daily; sometimes 3 to 4 discussions are posted on a daily basis, creating quite a buffet of research discussions and topics to keep respondents busy.

My main surprise came from the enthusiasm and excitement of respondents to participate. Many members write extensive, detailed commentary ultimately providing far greater, in-depth responses than those elicited in a couple of 2 hour Focus Groups. The community also provides greater anonymity than a Focus Group, giving members the confidence to discuss anything. Some members post images and videos to illustrate their opinions. In addition, there are a greater number of members, on average 100 to 200 members, who are participating in the community, making responses diverse.

The MROC set-up also allows researchers and Clients to conduct quick polls or surveys, adding a ‘quick-and-dirty’ quantitative element to the functionality of the site. Members are also encouraged to start their own discussions and launch their own polls, giving them a greater sense of co-creation. This also helps enhance member creativity, ultimately enhancing the quality of the data generated in the community as a whole.

And what about our beloved projective techniques? Well, the MROC site caters for that too. Moderators and researchers can upload images, videos, puzzles and other activities for members to complete that simulate projective activities. Moderators can also set discussions so that upon engaging in a discussion members are initially unable to see other members’ posts, making it a truly spontaneous, unaided response from members.

Clients who have experienced the MROC methodology have benefited extensively, especially by not having to spend their evenings watching Focus Groups, but rather they enjoy just logging onto the community site whenever it suits them and watching and monitoring the discussions and activities. Transcripts are available for both Client and researcher at just a few clicks of the mouse, which definitely beats waiting days for transcripts.

With the influence of social media and networking consumers feel comfortable communicating online. The online space is fast becoming a natural communication tool for consumers. Although internet penetration is not inclusive of the entire South African population, the growth of smart phones increases the internet-consuming population and many community members access the MROCs via a smartphone.

So although the Focus Group may still have merit as a qualitative methodology, it is certainly time to explore other options and leave our apprehensions and security blankets behind.