Are online reviews the new focus groups?

When brands want to dig deep into customer opinion, a long-established and favourite tool is the focus group. Using a carefully selected set of participants based on demographic information such as location, age, socio-economic background or race, these aim to gather insights from a ‘balanced’ and ‘representative’ sample of customers or potential customers.

While it’s true that putting a small group in a room with a moderator who is skilled at asking probing questions, the focus group has inherent problems:

  1. It’s expensive to plan and prepare, recruit and incentivise participants, rent a suitable facility, employ a professional moderator and report results. A session with 8-12 people can easily run up a bill of £5-10K. Larger brands will want to run multiple sessions, so funding this kind of market research is a significant budget commitment
  2. It has built-in bias, because even the most experienced moderator will find it hard to avoid ‘group think’ when the overbearing opinion of dominant participants sways the others
  3. Today, it’s harder than ever for brands to recruit a ‘representative’ sample of its target audience, especially when people are being incentivised. Some people are serial focus group attendees. A blog on tells cash-strapped would-be participants how to earn ‘up to £200 in two hours’ and which agencies to register with. Couple this with the fact that traditional segmentation models and customer profiles don’t always turn out to be accurate in a more democratised e-commerce world, and there might be a problem with the participant selection.

Online reviews analysis can be a much better alternative for understanding what customers really think. They are immediate and unmediated, captured at a moment in time when the customer had something they wanted to share about a direct experience with the brand. Of course, reviewers are also self-selecting, but they choose to respond when the brand interaction is fresh in their minds and without external influence or moderation.

Content is rich, often extremely detailed and reviewers are not afraid to use emotional language, positive or negative, that helps illuminate the brand or product experience. Volumes of comments for many brands are high, capturing customers of all backgrounds and persuasions. The best thing is that they can be ‘netted’ at any given time to show how the overall barometer of customer opinion is set.

Reviews content can also be combined with other unstructured organisational data for example, the transcripts of calls coming into the call centre or the results of larger-scale customer surveys. The ability to turn vast amounts of qualitative data into comparable quantitative analysis of key themes and issues over time – rather than a snapshot –  is a powerful tool. For a fraction of the cost of traditional focus groups, organizations can have access to data and insights that assist with new product development, commercial strategy, refining the customer journey or enhancing day-to-day interactions.