Online discussion board & online focus groups

An advertising agency and a state University needed to conduct online research to gauge the underlying emotions and motivations behind the student decision making process when choosing a university.

The objectives of this research were to capture and understand the reactions to the current university advertising campaign, and to gain a deeper insight into the thoughts, feelings and mindset of potential university students. The knowledge gained from the research would be used to evaluate campaign messages and develop a future communication strategy.

The research was conducted across 4 key target markets:


  • School leavers
  • Mature age students


  • Career advancement
  • A New start

A hybrid online qualitative research methodology was employed to gain a deeper understanding of the needs and attitudes of potential students.

Stage 1: Online discussion board homework.

12 participants were recruited to undertake an online task spanning 3 consecutive days. The homework was designed to explore the current stage-in-life situations of the student groups, the bases for the decision making processes and the current perceptions about the university.

Stage 2: real-time (live) online focus groups

8 participants were identified during the homework task for their rich level of online contribution. A cross section of participants were selected based on the quality of the answers provided and invited to participate in a real-time (live) online focus group. The objectives of this online focus group were to expand and build on the insights gained during the homework tasks.

Stage 1: Homework

The homework session was facilitated using an online community discussion board. This is not a real-time method, but occurs over-time, and in this case was conducted over three consecutive days. Students were invited to the discussion board, they upload a photo, and respond to a set of discussion topics posted to the board each day.

This type of online discussion created an environment where participants could respond to the comments and the moderator could foster the discussion around each of the topics. This method enabled students to create other avenues for discussion around the core topics. The freedom to respond in their own time provided new pathways of discovery, which could be explored to generate additional insights. Each day the student comments were moderated and responded to by the Moderator. The direction for the next day’s discussion was evaluated and created based on the previous day’s discussion. The new topics were then posted to the board for students to comment on.

Stage 2: Online focus group

This online focus group session followed on from the ‘homework’ component of the study, and was conducted with 8 students, 1 moderator and 1 client observer. This session followed the principles of traditional focus group methodology, but was conducted entirely in an online environment. Students were invited to log in to the session where they interacted with other students via a chat tool in response to discussions and cues loaded onto their computer screens remotely by the Moderator. Within a few hours the Full transcripts of the session was supplied to the client with the initial and immediate observations.

Case Study Uni Students Image

The research focused on the driving behaviors behind student decision making when choosing to study at a university. The research guide explored the strength and weaknesses of the university, the market fit of the current communication campaign, and a evaluation of the imagery used by interstate universities. The brand perceptions of the university were compared to the brand personality of a number of competing Australian universities.

A real-time (live) chat based online focus group was used to explore the topics in an interactive and chat based discussion environment. This real-time method enabled the moderator to explore further the driving motivations behind the student decision making processes. This method provided immediate insights into the decision making behaviour of the target audiences and how it affected their communication preferences. Within the online focus group environment the moderator was able to explore the challenges students faced when making decisions about future career choices and how this affected their current position in life.

The results

Case Study University Chart

The research results were used to quickly progress the evolution of the current university’s advertising campaign and marketing strategy. The resulting insight identified key areas of the campaign which could be adjusted to improve the attractiveness of the university’s offering. The immediate results obtained from this two pronged online research method enabled the advertising agency to quickly implement communication strategies which addressed the university’s perceived weaknesses.

The knowledge gained from this online research immediately identified some of the pain-points experienced by students when making decision that would impact future career decisions. The insights enabled the advertising agency to formulate a new campaign message to demonstrate how the university alleviated and supported the student decision making process.

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