By Gerald Bramm, CMRP, President, Bramm Research Inc.
Online surveys have become the default method used to gather information from association members. But reliance on this single tool can limit both the questions we ask and answers we receive. As Abraham Maslow noted, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” In this article we look at an association that used a relatively new tool to provide fresh insights into an important workplace issue affecting their members.
Beyond the Online Survey
It is not surprising that the online survey has become so popular. It is fast and inexpensive. However, it has limitations. It does not provide a detailed understanding of topics that require a thoughtful response or may be sensitive in nature.
The need for greater depth and sensitivity led the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) to look at alternatives to the standard online survey. The CSMLS is Canada’s certifying body for medical laboratory technologists and medical laboratory assistants, and the professional society for medical laboratory professionals.
Recent research conducted by the CSMLS provided some high level insights into workplace stress experienced by their members. Stress factors included increased workload due to staff shortages, training and access to resources. These are important issues and the CSMLS wanted to conduct further research. In the words of Michael Grant, Director of Marketing & Communications,
In order to be relevant to our members we have to have a real understanding of the issues they face in their professional lives. Only then can we look to build the supports our members will value. We had heard from our members that stress is a significant presence in their work life. We were seeking a way to gain a deeper understanding of what was causing this stress so that we could appropriately support them.
A New Spin on Focus Groups
Traditionally focus groups are used to deal with sensitive topics or topics that require thoughtful responses. Participants gather in a meeting room and have a facilitated one and a half to two hour discussion. An honorarium is usually paid. A national association often convenes groups in a number of Canadian cities, which is costly. As well as the cost of focus groups, participants are often under represented in areas outside urban centres.
A new online research tool seeks to capture the benefits of focus group interaction in a more cost efficient and representative way. Rather than coming together in a meeting room, they gather online. The participants can go online at the same time (which is called a synchronous or a “real time” group), or they can participate at whatever time suits them best over a number of days (known as asynchronous or “extended”). Eliminating travel costs and facility rental makes the online focus group more affordable than traditional groups. The research can involve a much broader set of participants. The participants are anonymous, and evidence suggests that this encourages greater openness and honesty.
For the purposes of this project, the CSMLS decided to experiment with the extended version of the online focus group (also known as an online discussion board) that typically takes place over a three-day period. It was felt that this approach would give respondents the time needed to reflect on the questions being asked and provide a thoughtful response.
Online Focus Groups – How They Work
To get the online group underway, CSMLS collaborated with Bramm Research and the software developer itracks which provided the online platform and support.
Respondents were chosen from members who had previously given their consent to being included as volunteers looking to contribute to their profession. The chosen participants reflected the overall membership in terms of gender and place of residence.
The project took place over a three-day period. Questions asked over this period were a mix of close-ended and open-ended questions. The moderator posted questions in the morning. Respondents could visit the site at their convenience to review the day’s question, post responses and read what others have posted. The moderator monitored, and asked additional questions to obtain clarification or to move the discussion forward.
There are special features of the discussion board that make it unique. A traditional focus group typically includes approximately eight to twelve respondents. The online focus group accommodates up to 50 respondents. Unlike traditional focus groups, participants are not influenced by responses from other respondents when they first answer a question. Only after they respond do they see the responses of others and can comment on these responses. This feature allows for an unbiased, top-of-mind response to each question.
Overall Evaluation of The Online Focus Group Approach
The three-day study period provided an opportunity to have a wide ranging discussion. The conversation touched on experience with workplace stress, perceived root causes of this stress and the ability of employers to decrease workplace stress.
Overall a great deal of valuable information was collected that could be used in a variety of ways. As Michael Grant observed,
Research from projects like this can turn into whitepapers, provide the foundation of new learning products (such as articles or webinars), inspire additional support services for members or inform advocacy messaging and efforts. Obtaining a deeper understanding of what our members are facing on a daily basis improves our ability to meet their needs and stay relevant as their professional association.
As well, the CSMLS concluded that the online focus group approach is a useful research tool that provides meaningful insights into potentially sensitive topics requiring a thoughtful response.
In our view, online focus groups offer a robust addition to the traditional online quantitative survey that has become the default method when conducting member surveys. With the advantage of being more economical than traditional focus groups, this approach is worth considering when looking for deeper responses that lay beneath the surface.
Gerald Bramm is the President of Bramm Research. We provide member based associations with the information they need to make better decisions. We do this by conducting market research, from large quantitative surveys to small one-on-one qualitative research projects. For more information contact us at [email protected]