BACKGROUND: Virtual focus groups-such as online chat and video groups-are increasingly promoted as qualitative research tools. Theoretically, virtual groups offer several advantages, including lower cost, faster recruitment, greater geographic diversity, enrollment of hard-to-reach populations, and reduced participant burden. However, no study has compared virtual and in-person focus groups on these metrics.
OBJECTIVE: To rigorously compare virtual and in-person focus groups on cost, recruitment, and participant logistics. We examined 3 focus group modes and instituted experimental controls to ensure a fair comparison.
METHODS: We conducted 6 1-hour focus groups in August 2014 using in-person (n=2), live chat (n=2), and video (n=2) modes with individuals who had type 2 diabetes (n=48 enrolled, n=39 completed). In planning groups, we solicited bids from 6 virtual platform vendors and 4 recruitment firms. We then selected 1 platform or facility per mode and a single recruitment firm across all modes. To minimize bias, the recruitment firm employed different recruiters by mode who were blinded to recruitment efforts for other modes. We tracked enrollment during a 2-week period. A single moderator conducted all groups using the same guide, which addressed the use of technology to communicate with health care providers. We conducted the groups at the same times of day on Monday to Wednesday during a single week. At the end of each group, participants completed a short survey.
RESULTS: Virtual focus groups offered minimal cost savings compared with in-person groups (US $2000 per chat group vs US $2576 per in-person group vs US $2,750 per video group). Although virtual groups did not incur travel costs, they often had higher management fees and miscellaneous expenses (eg, participant webcams). Recruitment timing did not differ by mode, but show rates were higher for in-person groups (94% [15/16] in-person vs 81% [13/16] video vs 69% [11/16] chat). Virtual group participants were more geographically diverse (but with significant clustering around major metropolitan areas) and more likely to be non-white, less educated, and less healthy. Internet usage was higher among virtual group participants, yet virtual groups still reached light Internet users. In terms of burden, chat groups were easiest to join and required the least preparation (chat = 13 minutes, video = 40 minutes, in-person = 78 minutes). Virtual group participants joined using laptop or desktop computers, and most virtual participants (82% [9/11] chat vs 62% [8/13] video) reported having no other people in their immediate vicinity.
CONCLUSIONS: Virtual focus groups offer potential advantages for participant diversity and reaching less healthy populations. However, virtual groups do not appear to cost less or recruit participants faster than in-person groups. Further research on virtual group data quality and group dynamics is needed to fully understand their advantages and limitations.