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Avoid the Unexpected Pitfalls of Online Focus Groups

Focus groups have always been fertile ground for the unexpected – a forum for new perspectives and surprising insights. But as we have had to transition to online qualitative, it’s the webcam format itself that can be the cause of the ‘unexpected’… from frozen screens and noisy backgrounds to participants in their car and videos that no one can hear.

Fortunately, many of these unexpected snafus can be easily minimized with planning and preparation. Here’s what to consider:

‘Tech-ready’ screening Make sure your research participants understand they have to have the right tech tools to participate.

  • reliable high-speed internet (it’s a good idea to tell them to ask their family members not to game or stream video while they are in the group!)
  • quiet private location where they can sit uninterrupted
  • laptop, PC or tablet with functioning webcam and mic (emphasize they cannot participate via mobile phone!)

Let them know that if their tech can’t keep up, they won’t be able to participate and won’t be paid an incentive.

Use a trusted and familiar conferencing platform There are many well-known providers, like Focus Vision InterVu, 20/20, and Civicom to name a few, who provide online focus group hosting with dedicated tech support, virtual backrooms, and helpful customized tools. These can run as much as $400 an hour. For those on tighter budgets, you can make video conferencing tools like Google Meet, Zoom, or AdobeConnect work. Just remember you won’t have dedicated tech support and the backroom tools are limited.

No matter which platform you go with, make sure you are comfortable with the software interface and are able to easily manipulate any tools and features yourself. You don’t want to be distracted searching for a drop-down menu in the middle of the group.

Plan for a slower pace You will find it takes longer to move through the discussion online than it would in an in-person group. Webcam discussions require more of a one-at-time flow to avoid participants talking over each other, and discussion guides should be planned accordingly.

And then there’s tech time. Invariably at least one participant will struggle to log on or will lose their connection in the middle of the discussion, further slowing the flow. Recognize that what takes an hour in person, will likely take at least an extra 10-15 minutes online.

Limit group size Given the slower pace of online groups, less is more. A total of 3-5 participants will be far more manageable and productive than a larger group. This also gives more opportunity to hear from each person in the group, rather than just more dominant personalities.

Provide clear instructions upfront Set up at the beginning of the group how people should indicate they would like to speak (e.g. raising their hand) to avoid lots of talk-overs. It also helps to ask everyone to view the discussion in ‘view all participants’ mode so they can get a sense of who is talking and feel more engaged.

Taking advantage of the virtual tools (not available in person!)

  • Pop-up text chats allow you to capture individual (and uninfluenced) impressions before starting a discussion.
  • Quick polls provide a quick read of preferences with the bonus of instantly downloadable data for visually compelling charts.
  • Better ways to share stimulus There’s lots of flexibility to share visual ideas from different perspectives with just a click. And most platforms offer tools that allow participants to individually mark-up visuals with detailed comments.

Complete a practice run prior to starting fieldwork Run through the full discussion flow on your chosen platform with a colleague or team member ahead of time. This will allow you to identify and address any tech glitches or issues displaying stimulus so that things run smoothly once you are live.

Make plans for backroom comments It can be difficult and distracting to keep up with the virtual backroom messaging while you are leading the session. Assign a team member to monitor the chat and if there are any urgent needs during the group, have your contact text them to your phone. It can also be helpful to schedule phone debriefs for feedback and any adjustments before and after each group.