Online focus groups in the video chat era

One of the most ubiquitous examples of market research is the focus group – a handful of people in a sterile room with a two-way mirror allowing observers to dissect the conversation. Online focus groups certainly existed before the pandemic, but since then, they have become the go-to format for this type of qualitative feedback.

Now that public gatherings are becoming more common, the question of whether to do an in-person or a virtual focus group is on the minds of many researchers. In this blog post, we break down the good and bad about virtual focus groups – and tips to follow to make sure yours is a success.

Benefits of a Virtual Focus

  • Fewer obstacles for participants: In-person focus groups demand more time of participants. Not only do they have to attend the actual focus group, but they also must dedicate part of their day getting to and from the discussion. This time commitment can be too high a bar for some individuals, many of whom may have some spectacular insights toward the issue you’re researching.
  • Wider, more inclusive participant pools: With in-person focus groups, geography is key factor in who can attend. This can be incredibly restrictive on whom you’re able to survey. For example, what if you’re trying to distinguish urban vs. rural attitudes – or across different regions in a state? If the budget doesn’t allow for travel and facilitation of different focus groups in a variety of markets, your participant may reflect only a small subset of your target audience. Virtual focus groups take geography out of the equation and allow for a wider range of those you need to hear from.
  • Easier to discuss sensitive topics: Sometimes a focus group needs to delve into questions that may be uncomfortable for participants to fully answer. Talking about these topics virtually doesn’t take away all the discomfort, but the setting does provide a greater sense of anonymity, which can yield more meaningful answers.

Cons of a Virtual Focus

  • Access to broadband internet a must: Being able to clearly hear and see everyone is integral to a virtual focus group, which demands a high-speed internet connection. While this isn’t a concern for most individuals, there’s still a notable segment of the population that doesn’t have high-speed access and would likely be excluded from virtual options.
  • Extra awareness for facilitators: It’s generally easier to pick up on participants’ non-verbal cues in person, which can help facilitators know who needs some extra prodding to engage. They also may have more trouble discerning facial expressions to qualify the intent behind a person’s response.
  • Tech failures: At this point, we’ve all experienced connection issues and tech failures on a video call. In group discussion settings, these can significantly impact the flow and momentum of a conversation.

Tips for Conducting a Virtual Focus Group

  • Utilize tools on video conference software: Programs like Zoom have great ways for people to weigh in without necessarily saying anything. Encourage people to use thumbs-up, thumbs-down, clap, etc. as a way to respond to someone’s comment.
  • Invest in training for online facilitators: As mentioned above, facilitating an online discussion takes a different skill set than managing an in-person one. Fortunately, there are many wonderful resources and trainings to ensure facilitators know all the latest tools and best practices.
  • Utilize calendar invites and reminders: Given all the different meetings and videos calls people have on their calendars, you don’t want your focus group to slip through the cracks. If people agree to participate, send them a calendar invitation, along with a series of reminders leading up the event.  
  • Practice, practice, practice: Because of all the potential tech issues, do several run-throughs to ensure your team is competent and comfortable with all aspects of the video conference software.
  • Don’t do it alone: Facilitating a group takes a lot of focus and energy. It’s too much to expect that you can do that AND take sufficient notes. Always make sure you have a dedicated notetaker to get all the big and little feedback shared.

Greg Surber

Greg Surber, APR, is a public relations strategist through and through. He works on a variety of accounts, leading research projects and content strategies, but he also has extensive experience with more traditional PR efforts including national and trade media relations campaigns.

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