Online Focus Groups are Getting Simple, Cheap and Pretty

February 22, 2006

37 Signals is a super-smart little company known for creating easy-to-use web-based project management tools (namely the Basecamp suite), and they have just announced the latest in their product family: Campfire. campfirelogo

According to their website, "Campfire brings simple group chat to the business setting. Instant messaging is great for quick 1-on-1 chats, but it's miserable for 3 or 4 or 7 or 15+ people at once. Campfire solves that problem and plenty more. "

A little background: By day I work at a university with a nonprofit evaluation team. We work for other nonprofits that are trying (...or are being forced to by their funders) to discover and amplify the best aspects of their program. A major part of our job is finding out what people think works well — so we are typically creating surveys and conducting focus groups or our clients.

Focus groups are a great way to bring together a lot of good people and get a lot of good advice about a program. Among all the fun things we do with nonprofits, they're my favorite. But in-person focus groups are expensive and difficult to arrange, especially when you are working with busy people. Who has time to sit around and talk about making a program better? You've too busy working on the program, dammit!

This problem is what first attracted me to the idea of conducting focus groups online. At the American Evaluation Association's conference last year in Toronto, I was fortunate to sit in on a session that discussed the existing methods for doing this type of work. All of the evaluators in the room seemed to really get excited about it: online focus groups solve so many of of the distance/time/money problems evaluators face, especially in the nonprofit sector. Some people have already been doing this with telephone surveys, but in many cases (depending on your phone company and country) this can be really expensive — and it's unlikely to give you a transcript.

And, unfortunately for most of us at the evaluator's conference, the presenters were from the for-profit world, and their solutions were ridiculously expensive — about $1500 per focus group administration. These are basically managed chat rooms in which invited participants are egged on with questions from a well-trained facilitator. This is why online focus groups have been largely a marketing research arena — big pharma et al don't need no stinkin' open source solution.

screenshot2After the session I raised the issue of reconfiguring WordPress or a more robust CMS (Joomla or Drupal) with a chat feature. If you could just manage to get all of your participants together online at the same time (or over a 3-day period), you could easily solicit lots of feedback. (And you wouldn't have to transcribe the results). Folks (including focus group guru Richard Kreuger) were excited about the possibility of finding a cheap way to do this: there is a serious need for something way below the $1500 range.

screenshotUnfortunately, in my research, I that most server-side free/open source chat software is buggy, poorly designed, and horrible with server resources. I found that people were using hosted solutions like Yahoo discussion groups in a pinch, and having limited success. So, not really able or willing to create a program from scratch, I put the project on hold. The recent release of Campfire brings a number of awesome features to the under-$20 table. Here are my notes on the best features for focus groups with Campfire:

  • It's simple, clean, easy, elegant (all synonyms for "37 signals product")
  • <li>Real time image previewing (for getting reactions, for example, to a chart) </li>
    <li>You get a unique url for your chat, unlike an IM chat, so you can invite people to a web page</li>
    <li>It tracks previous conversations</li>
    <li>It keeps a record of who said what when (the timestamps are just killer)</li>
    <li>You can have secure chats (essential, I would think, for IRB approval ...) </li>
    <li>No software other than a web browser is needed.</li>
    <li>Repeat: automatic transcriptions!</li>

So I'm really excited about Campfire and I look forward to trying it out, hopefully with a longer post in the near future about the existing options for online research of this nature. Until then, check it out for yourself if you need to do some group instant messaging, I think the possibilities are amazing if you just have a talented coordinator and some people that have valuable things to say.