Home Blog Qualitative Research How to get the best results from online focus groups 

How to get the best results from online focus groups 

Focus groups allow customers’ voices to take center stage. And that’s why they’ve long packed a powerful punch when it comes to qualitative market research. And this goes for both in-person and digital approaches. The COVID-19 pandemic was a trial-by-fire for digital focus groups, as the alternatives were suddenly off the table. 

But because for decades, focus groups have proved invaluable for understanding people’s views and experiences, as well as the decisions and actions they take – their motivations, feelings and mindsets. This insight is a core part of qualitative market research. And it’s a crucial part of understanding the human experience – getting a deeper, more complete understanding of the people you’re speaking to. 

A super-effective way to test products, features or concepts, to get more understanding of a new target audience – or to show whether there’s a market for an idea and get the inside scoop on how much customers are willing to pay for it… the list goes on. 

Picture the familiar set up. There’s a group of 6-10 people gathered around a table while a moderator guides them in a discussion on specific topics. These respondents will generally share something. They’ll be part of a specific demographic or have the same usability requirements or needs. 

So far, so usual. But when the pandemic hit, many sectors needed to make urgent pivots – and the research industry was no different. 
Thanks to mobile technology, focus groups were already starting to move online. Then Covid restrictions really supercharged their shift from the real world to the digital. And what started off as a necessity has evolved into what’s often now the default preference for gathering qualitative data and in-depth insights. 

Big benefits of online focus groups  

When it comes to sheer convenience, there’s no arguing that online focus groups win hands down for everyone: respondents, researchers and clients. 

People generally feel more at ease taking part in the comfort of their own home via a laptop or mobile device, rather than in a room full of strangers. And the fact they needn’t travel anywhere is something else to cheer about. 

With zero travel expenses to reimburse and no facilities to hire, there are definite cost and time savings for market research agencies (MRAs) and MRDs, too.  

One of the strongest points is that in the world of online focus groups, geographic boundaries simply melt away. Being able to recruit from a much larger pool of respondents who are geographically diverse, rather than those who live nearby the in-person focus group is being held? It’s a game changer. 

After all, with at least 93% of American adults using the internet and 97% of them owning a smartphone there are no barriers to recruiting people.  

Digital focus group flaws 

Online focus groups have definite advantages over in-person gatherings. But there are still serious sticking points when it comes to getting powerful insight, seamlessly. 
Let’s look at some of the drawbacks to running online focus groups through generic web conferencing platforms – as well as how platforms that are purpose-built for researchers can eliminate these problems.  

If you have the right tools on your side, what happens? Your research team will be able to go far beyond traditional expectations of virtual focus groups (and even beyond what you hope to be able to get face to face). 

Technology checklists 

Scheduling respondents, uploading materials, marking stimuli and polling. Tech headache yet? 

The fact is most digital focus group applications carry with them a hefty list of back-office requirements and logistics prep. These are all sorts of chores to take care of before you can get to the good stuff of digging into participants’ motivations, viewpoints and opinions.  

That might not be a problem for certain members of your team, but these tasks add on extra time and resources to what ideally should be a smooth process. Facing regular tech barriers is a sure-fire route to staff demotivation, too.  

Let’s not forget the potential tech limitations of the people taking part, either. Most platforms market researchers use for focus groups are intuitive but there are always hiccups – particularly for people who don’t see themselves as tech-savvy.  

Think last-minute panics about a mobile device not being compatible, an app needing to be upgraded, or not having enough space on a device…. Help! 

Web conferencing platforms that have become household names through the pandemic have their place (for simple business meetings and family quizzes), but the next generation of specialist digital focus group software can solve irksome tech headache issues. If you’re a professional – you need professional tools. 

At Forsta, we’ve relaunched our powerful online focus groups tool, InterVu, specifically for the research professional. The result? You can focus on the research and not have to grapple with any of the tech.   

All projects are staffed by a dedicated project management team, who handles your respondents’ scheduling and logistics. Every meeting has a live technician online and on hand in case you need rapid expert support. 

InterVu works off all the big browsers so there’s no need to download and install any apps or plugins – you can get online faster, wherever your participants are. This slashes your MR team’s admin to-do list to precisely zero.  

Plus, as long as your participants have the main browsers on their laptop or mobile device, they’re good to go – no IT panic needed. 

Compliance and security issues 

One non-negotiable for your digital focus group toolkit is to protect participants’ personal information (PII). Misusing consumer data has serious consequences and can result in hefty fines. 

Taking care of PII is the legal thing to do. Clearly, it’s the ethical thing to do too. In the digital age, many people are already concerned about how secure their online personal data stays.  

Data privacy is also firmly on respondents’ radar. If they agree to take part in market research, they quite reasonably expect their input to remain anonymous. 

And if participants lose faith that their data is safe, they’re less likely to carry on giving opinions freely – and the value of the insight will ultimately be diluted. So, it turns out there’s also a huge business and reputational case for protecting PII. 

With generic video platforms, it’s not always clear how to protect PII and stay fully compliant – not just to maintain trust but also to avoid receiving fines for breach of compliance. 

When it comes to consumer information, a far safer option – and one that’s less likely to lead to headaches – is a platform that’s specifically designed for research.  

Purpose-built tools like InterVu have data protection baked into a secure, compliant environment. So you can rest easy when it comes to security and privacy.  

Participants relaxed enough to talk 

One of the keys to generating rich insights from focus groups is participants feeling free to express honest opinions about the topic being discussed. 

Ask yourself: can that really happen if they know clients are sitting in and listening to what they’re saying?  

Using a generic web-conferencing platform for your focus group means clients join the call then quickly put themselves on mute. 
But focus group attendees may never really be able to shake off the feeling that somehow, they’re being observed. It’s hardly conducive to relaxed, authentic and free-flowing discussion.  

Choosing a purpose-built tool for your digital focus group toolkit eliminates the need for clients or researchers to lurk on mute, pretending they’re not really there. 

InterVu, for example, has a virtual backroom where you can discreetly observe participants and watch conversations play out naturally. This also means a private line to the person running the session to give live feedback and ask extra probing questions. 

So, you get to fully observe the focus group, just not in a way that’s going to hinder the valuable insights at stake. 

Goodbye to moderator bias 

Focus groups are nothing without moderators. These skilled people guide the discussion with questions and topics, facilitate the group dynamic and keep participants engaged and focused throughout. No mean feat, right? 

But whether it’s intentional or unintentional, what’s known as ‘moderator bias’ can creep in. This might be giving positive reinforcement to certain responses or comments that participants make. Or it could mean letting slip subtle non-verbal cues that can influence how people respond to questions. 

Stripping back every trace of objectivity is impossible for even the most expert moderator in the business, but it’s easy to influence the direction of a focus group without even realizing.  

It’s savvy to look for specialist focus group software that includes moderator training at standard. The price tag of moderator bias can be high, ultimately diluting the value of the insight from the session. 

Finding human collaboration online 

Sure, in-person focus groups can be a hassle to set up and run. But the high levels of collaboration between researchers and the people taking part have traditionally made the results worth the work. 

When most focus groups headed online because of the pandemic, one question dominated: could online focus groups really produce the same depth of insight as gathering people together in-person? 

We’re happy to say that the answer’s a resounding ‘Yes’.  

There’s not much that moderators can’t reproduce online that they’d have off-line. From sharing and marking stimuli to storytelling and polling, the remote alternatives to in-person groups have a host of killer features. 

Of course, it helps that specialist focus group tools like InterVu have seamless connectivity, even in low bandwidth modes. And enhanced audio and video comes from the latest Adobe Connect 12 technology to help you focus on the research. 

Pinpointing non-verbal language 

Most of what we convey through interacting with others is non-verbal, and we’re not even aware of it. 

From body movements and posture, to eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures and tone of voice, these all build up a picture to how we communicate with – and understand – each other. 

When people are sitting together in a group, body language and other non-verbal language can prove to be a goldmine. 

Seeing people’s reactions to questions and watching their interaction with others can be as powerful as listening to what they say. 

Certainly, online focus groups capture verbal insights through the microphones built into every modern mobile device and laptop. But can we say the same about the valuable non-verbal insights? 

Can you get the same clues in a virtual focus group or in-depth video interview environment when someone’s peering at a screen with only their head and shoulders on display? 

Here’s where we’re at: the truth is that online focus group software must work even harder to get the same insight from what’s happening non-verbally. 

Enter purpose-built tools that can capture emotions in real time. Forsta’s InterVu uses Adobe Connect 12 to power the audio and video for its browser-based solution. This means you can capture emotions at speed in awesome high definition (full definition in 1080p, to be exact, and even in low bandwidth mode). 

So, if you want an in-depth look at facial expressions and body language – not to mention direct and immediate feedback on a question or an issue – it’s all within your grasp. 

Just like all full-service solutions, there’s the option to bookmark important moments live – whether those are individual or group views – then create presentation-ready clips.  

Those magic moments when participants have given authentic reactions to a question or a comment that you know everyone in your team will want to know about? It’s easy to make them count. 

Conclusion: Smartest digital tools for the richest insights 
Human insight helps us connect the dots between what consumers think, feel, say and do. And savvy leaders and decision-makers want to use the voice of the consumer to inform their businesses’ future strategies – there’s nothing new in that. 

But now focus groups have evolved into the digital age, it’s crucial to hold tight to the interactions that help you pinpoint how customers are experiencing your brand. 

Making the right emotional connection with customers relies on being able to deeply understand and empathize with them. Frankly, it’s a stretch to get this level of rich insight using a generic web-conferencing platform.  

Human motivations, needs, behaviors and intents are complex, and call for whip-smart solutions that can do justice to the vast and vivid spectrum of your audience. Get the right tools on your team and human insight will truly transform your business. 

How Forsta can help

You can use Forsta’s InterVu as a standalone product for online focus groups, or alongside Forsta’s wider offerings of market research solutions. Get in touch and we’ll run you through the powerful benefits. 


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