Despite potential cost advantages, Internet focus groups are not likely to replace traditional, face-to-face groups anytime soon.
Automotive marketers say they're worried about the validity of Internet research that probes consumers' emotional responses. So, at least for the immediate future, they will continue using traditional focus groups.
Those groups typically cost $3,000 to $4,000 per session, which includes the fee for a moderator, room rental fee and videotaping costs. Not included in this cost are fees for the standard eight to 10 participants ($50 to $100 apiece for 1.5 to 2 hours of their time) and travel for corporate or vendor personnel.
Considering that car companies will run a number of focus groups to gauge consumer reaction, they can become expensive propositions.
Validity is concern
Still, automakers are not quite ready to conduct focus groups online. Audi, for one, has not used the Internet for that purpose, says spokesman Steve Keyes.
'We know of Web sites with chat rooms, and when we have a new model, we go to those chat rooms to elicit responses,' Keyes says. 'However, we don't recognize this as valid research, since we are talking only to people who like Audi.
'Would we like to have pure focus groups on the Internet? Sure, in the future, when the elements are in place to qualify participants.'
Steve McGuire, Internet marketing manager for Chevrolet, shares Audi's concern about the validity of Internet groups.
'We would look to do away with (live) focus groups in the future, but we are still checking things out on the research side,' McGuire says. 'For one thing, you don't really know who you're talking to online. I believe people are more truthful in person.'
Alan Kroske, account manager at Visual Services Inc. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., says the Net is best suited for gathering quantitative data. 'Focus groups, on the other hand, provide companies with qualitative data, because a moderator can ask a participant to clarify his or her response,' he says.
Saab's direct marketing manager, Al Fontova, agrees.
'We use focus groups in a more exploratory manner,' Fontova says. 'We then use the Internet for more quantitative research.'
Net has limitations
Will focus groups, therefore, always be conducted in hotel meeting rooms? Not necessarily, Kroske says.
'Currently, there are some limitations to conducting focus groups online, including bandwidth,' he says. 'Once we move to the point where we have additional bandwidth, we will be able to see and hear consumers. Then, I believe, Internet-based focus groups will become feasible.'
Until that day arrives, companies will continue to use tried-and-true methods, Chevrolet's McGuire says.
'If you're testing an ad campaign, and you're behind the glass, you can learn a lot from the group's facial reactions when they view something,' he says. 'I'm afraid that would be lost if we conducted that focus group on the Internet today.'