As internet speed and capacity increases, conducting virtual focus groups has become exceedingly popular over the last few years. Web and audio-based sessions could be easily done with a simple webcam, earphones, and a microphone. At the same time, some solutions even offer hybrid capabilities for both remote and in-person participation – mitigating issues linked to mobility and comfortability.
Online focus groups help businesses understand, in detail, the lived experiences of their consumers in a collaborative format. Allowing them to fill in the gaps or needs of their audience in a way that secondary research and quantitative studies can sometimes fail to accomplish.
But this doesn’t mean that this digital method is foolproof. It’s not enough to get it done, but it has to be done right to achieve insights that drive well-informed business decisions. Here are some tips on facilitating virtual focus groups for productive sessions.
1. Formulate Clear Research Objectives
The first step in every qualitative study is to describe what you want to achieve. These goals provide direction to your research and help identify any topics you wish to address in online focus group discussions.
Do you want to assess brand awareness amongst a particular demographic? Determine if a new product will sell? Or do you wish to evaluate customer satisfaction? By establishing what you want to learn, you can then create a research design that reflects your objectives.
2. Find the Right Online Platform
Choosing the right online platform for conducting virtual focus groups can provide you with the efficiency needed for faster turnaround times. Ideally, you would want a platform with integrated tools for streaming, recording, collaboration, and curation for an optimized research experience.
- Streaming and Recording tools
Online focus group platforms mimic face-to-face interaction with remote participants through HD recording and streaming. With focus group streaming technology, stakeholders, clients, and participants can access the live session by clicking a link without needing to install any software on their devices.
- Collaboration tools
Chat and comment features enable you to coordinate and collaborate with your team members for real-time updates on changes, both during and post-recording.
- Curation tools
When you want a straightforward way to analyze your findings, keyword tagging, video clipping, and storyboard creation are integral features that you need for effective insight discovery.
3. Leverage Virtual Focus Group Recruitment
Online recruitment allows you to reach the most diverse and captive audience for your focus group discussion because participants do not have to come from one specific location. If your online platform allows for hybrid focus groups, you could also recruit participants that live near the research facility so they can attend the live stream session in person.
There are many kinds of participant sources from which you can gather respondents. But no matter your chosen medium, eligibility criteria should always align with the research design and objectives. This means that your sample must represent the general population you want to collect data from.
Lastly, keep your focus group size inside the 4 to 12 range. Groups with only three or two respondents may not provide the level of participation needed. In contrast, a group of more than 12 people may be difficult for a single moderator to manage. Having the optimal number of people provides enough time for all participants to share feedback and remain engaged while reducing strain on the moderator.
4. Invite and Schedule Groups Appropriately
Before inviting qualified people to participate, it would be beneficial to contact them personally through phone or video chat first. Personal contact allows you to introduce yourself and answer any questions they may have regarding the study. This makes respondents feel more comfortable attending your focus group session and reduces the chances of anyone dropping out of the study.
When scheduling the session, select a date, time, and location that suits you and your participants. The timing should be dependent on your respondents’ location and demographics. To prevent any distractions or technical issues, ensure that remote viewers have access to a computer they’re familiar with and a quiet room.
NOTE: In case there are last-minute dropouts, it would be better for schedulers to contact one or two reserve participants as a safety net.
5. Designate Specific Roles for Staff
These two major roles are essential when conducting virtual focus groups:
The moderator is responsible for interacting with the group and leading the discussion. Specifically, the moderator needs to:
- Be a good listener, communicator, and observer
- Remain neutral (Not agreeing or disagreeing with any comments made during discussion)
- Use several techniques to manage participants and ensure equal contribution to the conversation
- Demonstrate sensitivity and respect
- Carry out ground rules for the entirety of the session
The note-taker is responsible for recording key points in the discussion so that the moderator can focus on the group. They need to:
- Be a silent observer
- Record non-verbal cues, quotes, and ideas
- Keep extra supplies
- Assist in planning and preparation if needed
6. Plan Your Discussion Guide
This is the roadmap that you would follow to implement a successful online focus group. The discussion guide provides structure to your conversation, defines the purpose of your study, and keeps everyone in the group on track. When conducting multiple sessions, using a guide promotes consistency across different groups. This is invaluable when drawing patterns and connections between responses.
When writing a discussion guide, it should:
- Be adapted for online use (if conducting hybrid focus groups, it should be applicable for online and in-person)
- Outline the flow of the session (introduction, ice-breaker, core questions, comments, closing remarks)
- Contain three to five key topics, with each topic having about half a dozen questions.
7. Test Technology Ahead of Time
No one wants an IT headache while facilitating virtual focus groups. To avoid these problems from occurring, participant platforms, connections, and devices should be tested before the session starts in case troubleshooting is required.
You could instruct online participants to sign in 10-15 minutes before the actual group interview to ensure that their devices are functioning correctly and that they have a stable internet connection. If conducting a hybrid session, it’s important to test equipment such as cameras and microphones as well for a seamless discussion.
NOTE: To make this process easier, choose an online platform that provides tech support, such as a guided set-up and live assistance throughout your study.
8. Sharpen your Facilitation Skills
When facilitating virtual focus groups, you must keep these tips in mind:
- Gather Consent: Before starting the focus group discussion, it’s crucial to gather consent from participants to ensure that they have an informed choice about whether to participate in the study. The consent agreement can be sent to each participant so they can sign it ahead of time. It can also be collected online using an online tool or by voice recording.
- Participant Cards: Prepare cards for each participant with their name and key facts so you can keep track of everyone and direct questions accordingly.
- Briefing: At the start of each session, moderators should first communicate ground rules, research objectives, and expectations with the group. Laying down the foundation of your discussion prevents confusion between participants and helps provide clarity about your research.
- Participant Stimuli: Determine how your stimuli will be shared (e.g., screen sharing, video, virtual whiteboard, chat, discussion). You would want to choose group stimuli or activities that are engaging and clear for both remote and in-person participants.
- Session Duration: Ideally, your focus groups should run for 60 to 90 minutes online. This ensures that participants stay focused and limits distractions for those working from home.
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