How to Conduct Online Focus Group Interviews
The focus group has long been a staple of qualitative market research. Bringing together a diverse group of prospects and customers, you can get direct, interactive and real-time feedback about a product or service.
In combination with other research methods like surveys, the focus group can give you a detailed view into the minds and hearts of prospective customers and enable you to fine-tune and refine (or perhaps scrub) your product or marketing plans.
Online focus groups have created a powerful new opportunity for companies to reach more diverse populations more rapidly. Although typically smaller than traditional in-person groups, online focus groups are more flexible and, if conducted properly, can give you a wider range of actionable data.
Online focus groups have created a powerful new opportunity for companies to reach more diverse populations more rapidly.
Just a few of the many advantages of online focus groups include:
- Geographic diversity. In-person groups require participants to gather at a central location. Online group participants can be anywhere, enabling market researchers to gather opinions outside of urban hubs.
- Time- and cost-efficiency. You’ll be able to gather more data at a fraction of the cost. Recruiting is simpler and you don’t have the overhead cost of renting a facility or paying for refreshments.
- Focus and anonymity. Depending on the online focus group technique you select, some types of online research can result in participants speaking more freely, without distraction or peer pressure.
One potential downside of online focus groups is that populations who are technology-challenged will not be able to participate, skewing your sample to people with computer skills. Researching a product that requires a more tactile experience (like a food product or a complex gadget) may be better suited for a face-to-face experience than an online focus group.
The Types of Online Focus Groups
Synchronous online focus groups are real-time and are conducted via video or chat. They’re most similar to their live predecessor, in that moderators can easily direct the conversation flow, encouraging participants to build on each other’s comments.
Asynchronous groups are often called Bulletin Board Focus Groups (BBFGs), forums, or research communities. They typically run over several days and are used primarily when cost or timing are factors. The participants don’t see or interact with each other and these groups don’t need a human moderator. The groups can have as many as 30 participants, who respond to questions and visual prompts. They don’t have to be online at the same time. As a result, they are less interactive and don’t allow for on-the-fly adjustments or redirection.
Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Our focus here is the synchronous groups. Although they have been in use for close to two decades, rapid technology enhancements make conducting them simpler, faster, more cost-effective, and accessible to companies of all sizes. They have many of the advantages of in-person groups because they are fluid and allow for human interaction. Technology is simply the enabler. Especially when the group is well-moderated and the dialogue is recorded and transcribed, you’ll benefit from rich and deep customer-centric insights about your product or service.
How Do You Create an Online Focus Group?
As with any solid qualitative research, begin with your learning objectives. What do you expect to gain insights into or validate through the research? What questions need answering? And, even more important, who is the population you need to reach?
Secure online focus group participants
Most online focus group companies today can assist with recruiting. But you must provide clear direction on the population you need to reach. For example:
- Demographics such as age, income, education, etc.
- Customer behavior (e.g. do they use a certain type of product?)
- Online behavior (e.g. Internet usage and computer literacy)
- Availability to participate at a time that suits you
- Geographic region
Limit the size of the group to 8-10 people. Some professionals recommend even smaller groups. The size will ultimately be determined by the complexity of the questions you’re asking and the depth of data you need to gather.
As online focus groups have grown in popularity, many consumers choose to participate simply to make money. Be sure as you’re screening that you select people who can really add value and provide the information and ideas you need.
Choose the technology you plan to use
Keep it simple. Take user system requirements into consideration. You don’t want to eliminate highly-qualified participants just because they don’t have a particular type of software or hardware. Some research companies that specialize in online focus groups may have their own propriety tools or preferences. Many of these applications can be valuable for online focus groups. Some popular tools today for online interactive focus groups are:
- Google Hangouts
Online focus groups can be comprised of video, audio, and text messaging. Being able to read body language and expressions via video can be helpful, which is why many researchers opt for that feature. Whiteboards and polling create an interactive experience for participants throughout the research session. As you plan your research flow and questions, mix up the techniques you’re using to keep everyone engaged.
Develop a tight research plan
Create a compelling mix of questions, exercises, and discussion topics that will keep your participants engaged. Set a tight agenda and keep it flowing to prevent drop-outs. Unlike a live group, where people will usually stay in the room, online participation can be fluid.
Select the right moderator
As with in-person groups, the role of the moderator is to keep things moving, probe deeper on specific discussion points, and summarize key points. Some research professionals suggest having two moderators, which keeps the group interesting and allows for a division of responsibilities and roles. You may want to select a moderator who has direct experience in your product or service category.
Encourage, Engage, and Elicit
In addition to being adept at the “3 E’s” of focus group moderation — Encourage, Engage, and Elicit — the online focus group moderator must also be totally comfortable with technology (or have an able sidekick) to respond quickly to impromptu questions, chats, and even technical issues. Research company Gutcheck lays out these 5 most important qualities of a great online focus group moderator. Depending on the type of research approach you’re using, the moderator may not be able to sense engagement or body language, so keeping the group on-track can be more challenging.
Frame the right questions for online research
This list of 53 sample questions is a great place to begin. Make sure your language is simple and jargon-free. Limit your questions to only those that will elicit the information and perspectives you need (see #1). If you’re researching a product, logo, or other concepts that require feedback on a design, incorporate imagery into your materials. According to branding/thought leadership company B2B International, “Online focus groups are likely to incorporate high resolution, moving graphics, particularly as stimulae for respondents. This will make online focus groups even more viable for product development research in particular.”
Capture the results — accurately and immediately
Recording your online focus groups is essential, as is transcribing the sessions for future reference and analysis. Transcripts can keep you organized, save you time, and make your findings more accessible.
You can now use the transcripts, in conjunction with other research you may have conducted (e.g., quantitative surveys) to review and summarize your findings. This six-step process will help you use transcripts to their best advantage, identifying common threads, patterns, and big ideas.
Once you’ve thoroughly analyzed and assimilated the results, the process really starts — incorporating prospect and customer feedback into growing your business.
7 Essential Steps to Conducting Online Focus Groups
Focus groups, in combination with quantitative research, can be invaluable in helping you define a target audience and capture meaningful insights into the development or refinement of brands, products and services.
Unlike traditional live focus groups, online groups give you the ability to “speak” to people from multiple geographies simultaneously, saving you time and money and giving you a more diverse sample size.
Synchronous groups are conducted via video and chat and the moderator leads a group through questions and exercises, encouraging discussion and interaction.
Here are 7 key steps to ensuring you get the best results from your online focus groups:
Online Focus Group in Eight Steps:
1. Set goals
No matter how you’re interacting with research subjects, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re going to do with the data.
2. Make sure you know:
What types of people (age, demographics, locations) will provide the type of data you need
The specific questions your research must answer
How the qualitative data you’re gathering will be used, along with any qualitative information you have.
3. Recruit the right participants
Although online groups require a basic level of tech-savvy and equipment, you will still have access to a large population. Limit the size to 8-10 people to allow for lively participation. Screen to ensure that your groups closely mirror the population you ultimately offer your product/service too or find groups that accurately reflect new target segments.
4. Select easy-to-use and accessible technology
Online research tools abound. Video, audio, and text messaging are all basic requirements today. If you’re going to be showing prototypes of products, asking participants to react to graphics, or conduct polls, be sure that the solution you’re using gives you the right flexibility, speed, and ease of use. Don’t overengineer! Go through a test run prior to executing your first group.
5. Develop a tight plan
Develop a compelling mix of questions, exercises, and discussion topics. A great moderator will be able to “stick to the script” but can also tease out new discussion topics and reactions from the group, based on the direction the conversation takes.
6. Encourage, engage, and elicit
These are the three basic tenets of focus group moderation. Select a moderator who has expertise in your category and has previous experience with online groups.
7. Frame the right questions for online groups
As with live groups, questions should allow for lively discussion and interaction and should be free from bias. Make sure your language is easy to understand and give participants an easy way to refer to questions and prompts (the digital version of the flipchart or whiteboard).
8. Capture the data – accurately and immediately
Record and transcribe the groups. Not only can you share the conversation with people who weren’t in attendance, but you’ll also have a way to review the discussion points and look for patterns, keywords, and direct quotes that will be helpful in decision-making.
Have a sound strategy and an open mind. A great strategy, a seasoned online moderator, the right participants, easy-to-navigate technology, and a combination of exercises that keep people engaged all make for a terrific online focus group experience.
And recording and transcription are the keys to ensuring your results are clear and put to best use – in developing products and services that meet the true needs of consumers and businesses.