When a Rockville, Maryland, children’s clothing retailer wanted to uncover current and prospective customers’ buying habits, it didn’t shoot out a survey. Instead, it initiated a deeper conversation by conducting an online focus group.

What the company discovered from the results was a rare opportunity. It wasn’t losing potential sales because of a competitor; it was losing them because it didn’t open early enough. Many of the retailer’s prime clients regularly eat breakfast nearby. They said that if the store were open earlier, they would be more likely to grab breakfast and then shop.

This insight encouraged management to open doors sooner. Within a week, the company recouped the full cost of the online focus group investment in sales.

The clothing retailer’s experience showcases how valuable focus groups can be, especially online versions that generally cost up to 30 percent less than their traditional in-person counterparts.

Why, then, aren’t more businesses clamoring to jump into online focus groups? The problem lies in incorrect assumptions about the process.

Debunking Online Focus Group Misconceptions

Strangers to online focus groups sometimes assume they’re inferior to their in-person counterparts. The moderator and participants must be able to see one another to hold a productive conversation, right?

But the very nature of business today debunks this myth. Most interactions already happen through email or other text-based media, which convey ideas and emotions just as well as in-person conversations. Text-interactions also offer a hidden upside: They eliminate bias due to age, race, gender, height, weight, or clothing. Participants’ responses are, if anything, truer than they would be in a traditional focus group.

Another misconception among executives who are familiar with classic focus groups is that online conversations can’t drill far enough below the surface.

In reality, online groups often achieve even greater depth than their in-person peers because all participants can respond simultaneously without interruption or intimidation by dominant personalities. The extra mental step that participants take to respond in writing results in rich, thoughtful insights.

Finally, many business leaders assume that online focus groups have limited testing capabilities. But if it can be hosted on the web, it can be tested by an online focus group. Anything from product interfaces to advertisements to websites to employee satisfaction are all fair game.

In other words, it’s time to give online focus groups a more serious look.

Conducting an Online Focus Group

If the journey from inception to fruition sounds daunting, break the process into components, and you’ll see how doable it can be.

Begin by describing your perfect participant. Consider demographics, as well as behaviors. For instance, do you want to get information from first-time moms in their 30s making a specific income? Or would you rather pepper your focus group with college students who are living at home to save big bucks? Being specific will help you determine where you can go to find candidates, such as in your company’s customer database, on social media accounts, in online forums, through job boards, and even via prepurchased lists.

After collecting names, screen each person with a short survey. Screening questions should serve to determine who has the right characteristics versus who is ill-suited to contribute to your focus group.

Shoot for at least 15 strong prospects to ensure you wind up with around eight to 12 attendees. Although you can affordably run an online focus group with as few as four participants, try to fill the virtual seats, if possible.

If you’ve never moderated an online focus group before, try to keep the guest list at 10 or fewer attendees. Otherwise, you might find group management challenging at first. Depending on your objectives, each discussion can run from one to two hours.

Plan to conduct at least two — ideally four — online focus groups per participant segment. Hearing the same thing from the first two groups? You might assume that you can save time or money by skipping the final conversations. However, realize that you run the risk of missing out on potentially different feedback from your third and fourth groups.

As a last tip, always show participants your appreciation with compensation. Your method of remuneration could be PayPal deposits, checks, product samples, gift cards, or other incentives. Incentives boost show rates and make participants feel valued for their time and feedback.

Keeping Participants Moving Toward Your Objectives

If you or a colleague are taking the lead rather than working with a professional moderator, you need to plan for success. Create a moderator’s guidebook in advance so you can have it at your fingertips. Never trust your memory to guide you without written backup; besides, a guide enables efficiency and consistency across focus groups.

Good moderators know how to listen, so practice speaking less and being more attuned to reading what is said. Feeling a lull in the discussion? End the dead zone by using participants’ names to elicit responses: “John mentioned something very interesting about X. Sophia, what do you think?”

The goal is for you to keep everyone contributing and motivated. Additionally, you must remain objective throughout the event. Moderators need to check their emotions at the door; otherwise, they might sway outcomes.

Establishing a marketing culture that supports online focus groups could mean the difference between hitting quarterly goals or disappointing shareholders. Not only will you get closer to your target buyers, but you’ll also have invaluable, context-rich data to govern your future brand strategies.