The pandemic shifted almost all research studies to online formats, and though we’re mostly living without any pandemic restrictions, many companies have continued to do online focus groups. They are less expensive than in-person groups, though there is certainly a lot that is lost from traditional in-person research. However, they do have some advantages, in that they allow people who live in more rural areas to attend groups, and we can do groups from multi-regions in one setting, versus just city-by-city.
If your team is hiring a company, such as InterQ to moderate, we will handle the full recruiting, setup, discussion guide development, moderating, and reporting. However, if you are conducting focus groups yourself online, below are some tried and true tips to ensure the groups are successful.
How to conduct focus groups online, tip 1: Have smaller groups
My favorite number for in-person groups is 6-7 (I try to never exceed 7 people). For very detailed B2B discussions, I’ll even go with smaller groups, at 4-5, so that we can have in-depth discussions, and so that I can get more information from each participant.
In online groups, keeping your number lower is key: I never exceed 5 people when conducting focus groups online. The reason is that it’s harder to direct participants, and participants don’t have the same body cues/body language signals that they would if in-person, so people tend not to have conversations with each other; just the moderator (which is definitely a disadvantage of online groups). Participants tend to get lost in the shuffle and moderators end up just asking everyone the same question when there are more than 5 participants – and as a result, the conversation tends to be more boring for the other participants. To alleviate this, have a smaller group size, and that way there will be more participation from each member.
How to conduct focus groups online, tip 2: Set clear ground rules
The ground rules upfront that the moderator sets are essential for a successful group dynamic. Be very clear about how the discussion will work and what is acceptable and unacceptable group behavior. Here are a few of the rules I always set with participants:
- Please focus and don’t be multitasking (reading articles/doing other things online/taking care of household chores, etc.) The group works best when everyone is focused and participates; those who are not paying attention will be removed.
- It’s okay to talk to each other, not just the moderator. Because we don’t have in-person body language, if you want to raise your hand to speak, this will ensure there are less interruptions, but please build off of each other and don’t just speak to the moderator.
- Keep camera on and mic muted when not speaking: It’s really distracting for cameras to be flashing on and off, so keep cameras on. Please mute mics when not speaking to ensure there is no background noise.
- Additionally, let participants know if the group is being recorded, if there are hidden observers, the length of the group, and to be respectful of other participants.
How to conduct focus groups online, tip 3: Keep groups shorter online
When conducting focus groups in-person, I almost always have a 2-hour group. This allows for 3 – 4 solid themes, as well as activities. However, when conducting focus groups online, to help participants keep their attention spans, aim for shorter groups. Typically 1-1.5 hours is about as much as you can get from people without their attention drifting. This also is why having smaller groups is key: With a shorter group, you’ll still be able to get valuable feedback from each member. With too many participants, you’ll have very little time to get feedback.
How to conduct focus groups online, tip 4: Either use stimulus during the groups or before
Typically, online focus groups are a great way to get a more in-depth discussion after people have already done some pre-work – either through mobile ethnography or online diary responses. The groups then allow the moderator to do a deep-dive into a topic that participants are already familiar with.
Alternatively, the moderator can also show some stimulus and have some activities during the focus group. There are multiple online moderating platforms that make this easy, or the moderator can screen-share on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Moderators can also email participants documents, if they’re not on a focus group moderating platform. Activities other than just discussion help keep participants engaged. However, it’s hard to have the same level of creativity/breadth of activities that are available in-person, but moderators can still do things such as category associations, individual writing exercises before sharing with the group, and visual card sorting. The chat function can be useful to get individual participant feedback before ideas are shared with the group.
How to conduct focus groups online, tip 4: Pick your platform wisely!
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, there are numerous online platforms for moderating online focus groups, including those from dscout and Recollective, to name just a few. However, Zoom also works great, as long as you don’t require a virtual backroom and observers (though you can still have them if people’s cameras are off, simply by hiding non-video participants). Zoom isn’t as robust, of course, as some of those specifically designed for online moderating, but the cost is significantly lower. At InterQ, we typically use Zoom, and we’ll incorporate Miro boards when we want to have group brainstorming discussions and present stimulus.
If you’re going to use a specific platform designed for focus group moderating, just make sure you build it into your budget.
Finally, make sure you have an experienced moderator!
Even the best platform, mix of participants, and logistics setup will go to waste if you don’t have an experienced moderator at the helm. Moderating looks easy from the outside, when it’s done well, but it takes someone who has had specific training and years of experience (as well as subject familiarity) to really lead excellent groups. Fortunately, you can hire an expert moderator to lead the charge, if there are still other aspects of the study you want to manage.