Prior to COVID-19 shutdowns in March of 2020, at InterQ, we would occasionally use Zoom for online focus groups if we had participants who were hard to gather in a single location, or if timing was hard to schedule, but it was definitely an exception, rather than the rule. Whenever possible, we would try to meet in-person with our participants, even when it meant that a moderator would be traveling to 3-4 cities in a single stretch.
And then March lockdowns began. I don’t need to replay the months that followed, as I’m sure we’re all too painfully aware of how much of our lives was forced to the digital realm so abruptly.
For us in the market research world, this meant that we were now going to have to do all of our focus groups, UX research, ethnographic research, and in-depth interviews online. Fortunately, we had the technology to do it, and, blessedly, everyone suddenly was comfortable with using Zoom, but we often were asked, and still are, about the pros and cons of doing focus groups online, versus in-person.
Are online focus groups effective?
Focus groups online inevitably have a different dynamic than when we conduct research in-person. For one, when we do in-person focus groups, we often host them at focus group facilities or co-working spaces with conference rooms. These settings are very professional businesses, with a front-desk employee, assistants, and rooms designed for interviewing and meetings. In this context, participants tend to mirror the professional environment they are in, and we rarely have problems with people arriving late or acting overly-casual (read: showing up in sweats, for example). The setting means that there are few distractions, other than the conversation that the moderator is leading. The whole focus group facility industry is a well-oiled machine, and it makes it easy for both the moderators and the participants to understand the expectations asked of them when they participate in a research project.
Online focus groups are entirely different. The moderator is unable to control the setting – participants are typically home, and they may be distracted by children, their phones, the TV, or their pets. People may be dressed in their pajamas or sweats. Not being in-person means that people feel less pressure to act formally, and it can be very challenging for the moderator to hold people’s attention with so many distractions taking place. Furthermore, without visible body cues, it’s harder for participants to respond to each other’s comments, and there is frequent interrupting or sometimes, just silences, as people don’t have their typical in-person cues to go off of.
As one might imagine from the above description, it can be challenging to have online focus group discussions, in light of the distractions that people have when they’re not in a focus group facility.
However, this does not mean that online focus groups are ineffective. It does mean that you need to ensure that your moderating team is highly, highly versed in conducting online groups, and that they know how to carefully recruit and screen participants, as well as have clear ground rules for participants.
What to expect in an online focus group
Since online focus groups are, well, online, this means that clients won’t have a backroom to sit in where they can observe the groups, take notes, and coordinate closely with the moderator during the breaks. However, clients can still observe in a virtual backrooms, or they can immediately watch the groups afterwards on video. So, the observation and feedback situation is different – but not lost. Another difference is the size of the groups. A team who is well-versed in online moderating should not recommend more than 5 people at a time in an online group (versus 6-7 people for in-person groups). Since it’s more challenging to hold everyone’s attention and get equal participation online, less people per group works better. If your moderating team is recommending more than 5 people, that may be a hint that they don’t have a lot of experience in online groups, and it’s probably worth exploring other options.
Finally, if you’re hiring a firm to conduct online focus groups, ensure you ask them for a double-screening process. This means that in addition to the screening questions that ensure participants meet the criteria, they also do a video screen to check that the participants have strong internet connections and can comfortably use the video platform; that people understand the ground rules clearly; and that, above all, they seem to fit the criteria, based on honest responses to the screener. This is absolutely key to ensure you don’t get the wrong candidates into your online focus group.
Likely, online focus groups will be ever-present until the end of 2021, when a good portion of the population is vaccinated (at least in certain countries), so definitely don’t put off research and the incredibly valuable insights that market research can yield – but do be extra discerning about who you hire to conduct your groups online.