Exploring the Potential and Challenges of WhatsApp Focus Groups in Qualitative Consumer Research: A Case Study of Sustainable Eating





Mobile focus groups, WhatsApp, Consumer studies, Sustainable consumption, Healthy eating


The emergence of digital technologies has opened new methods for engaging consumers, conducting focus groups, and gathering research material online. One such method is the use of smartphone-based mobile messaging platform WhatsApp, which allows real-time discussions and diary-type studies. Nevertheless, the potential of WhatsApp focus groups as a research method necessitates further exploration. This paper analyses the advantages and limitations of employing WhatsApp-based focus groups in qualitative consumer studies related to sustainable eating. Specifically, we will examine the effectiveness, interaction, and quality of research materials obtained through this method in previous studies. To carry out our study, we organized a focus group in Finland utilizing the WhatsApp-based platform with a pre-selected panel of 24 participants. The study explored barriers to sustainable food choices among so-called imperfect consumer segments. Based on our observations, mobile focus groups offer a fruitful method for studying consumer insights due to the direct and non-hierarchical communication channels they provide between participants and researchers. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that materials acquired through mobile groups may be less extensive than those obtained through traditional focus groups. Participants often rely on emojis and emoticons to convey meaning, which may pose challenges in terms of text-based coding, categorization, and software utilization. Furthermore, the fragmented nature of messages presented another challenge in analysing the collected material. Additionally, when employing WhatsApp focus groups as a method, careful preparation of the question route is necessary to ensure the production of high-quality research materials.

Author Biographies

Virpi Oksman, VTT

Dr Virpi Oksman is a senior scientist at VTT Technology Centre Finland. She received her PhD in Journalism and Mass Communication from Tampere University in 2010. Her dissertation examined the integration of the mobile phone into everyday life as a communication device and as media. Her primary research interests lie in the areas of new technologies, sustainable consumer behavior, and the advancement of online research methods.

tom tamlander, VTT

Tom Tamlander is a research assistant at the VTT Technology Centre of Finland in Helsinki, Finland. He will soon receive his MSc in Environmental and Resource Economics from the University of Helsinki, with a focus on environmental valuation methods and sustainable consumer behaviour. He is interested in psychological modelling of behaviour and choice experiments to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence and promote sustainable behaviour.

Marjoriikka Ylisiurua

Marjoriikka Ylisiurua is a senior scientist at VTT Technology Centre Finland. She holds a PhD in consumer economics and MSc in Electrical Engineering. Her main interest is the reflexive relationship between large social groups and innovations, including online platforms and sustainable innovation.

Anu Seisto

Dr Anu Seisto is the research team leader for the Future Customer team at VTT Technology Centre Finland. The team focuses on combining foresight and human-centric tools and methods. Her main interest is in sustainability transition, and how the systemic change can be supported.