What is an online focus group?
An online focus group, also known as a virtual focus group, is an online panel with multiple participants and a moderator, aimed at discovering rich insights that can’t be found with static surveys. The group, along with the moderator, might share thoughts on products, or new concepts, or tell researchers about themselves as a target audience. The beauty of a focus group is the interaction between participants – each person can influence the others as well as share their unique perspective.
Historically, focus groups have been conducted in-person but online is increasingly popular. And indeed, offers tangible benefits. These include convenience – both for timing and across geographies, and logistics; the moderator can tailor the questions on the fly to better drive the discussions. Online focus groups are convenient for participants, relatively inexpensive for researchers to conduct, and offer multimedia capabilities such as showing different types of media like videos or playing music clips, for example.
Types of online focus groups
Because of this flexibility, there are two main types of focus group – synchronous and asynchronous. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to you which one suits your research best.
Synchronous online focus groups are very similar to in-person ones; a group of people discussing together their answers to the moderator’s questions. They offer insight into people’s emotions and body language that can’t be found in asynchronous groups.
Asynchronous – like an online forum or an email chain – means participants can join in at their convenience, no matter when that is. In addition, participants may feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics because of greater anonymity versus an ‘in person’ online focus group.
You can choose which type of online focus group works for you and your project. You can even run both types and see what gives you the best results. Keep in mind, that a research method is never perfect! After all, we are dealing with humans here.
Both approaches only work if the moderator is engaged and persistent. To help you be effective, we’ve prepared 10 steps to manage your online focus group.
1. Check your lighting
Good lighting is key to any quality video capture. It’s important for participants to see you, and if applicable each other, clearly, and be able to take visual cues from facial expressions and body language.
2. Look and talk to the webcam
Now you can see each other clearly, the next step is to build a connection. One way of doing this is to look directly at your webcam while talking. Doing so helps participants feel that you are speaking directly to them.
3. Take time to build rapport at the outset
The warm-up is even more important online as people aren’t physically present. Begin with a topic or activity that will help form a connection between you and your participant, and, if relevant, others in the group. Warm-ups can be a simple ice-breaker on a subject related to the project at hand. Alternatively, it could be something a little more ‘out-there,’ all depending on whom you are talking to, and the conversation about to take place.
4. Frame the conversation
Outline what will be covered during the session, state your “rules of engagement” and reference the outline at different points in the conversation.
5. Screen share is a versatile visual aid
There’s multiple ways to use screen share as a visual aid for participants. For example, show the conversation outline on screen as you talk through the discussion flow, or display the current discussion topic or question. Screen share can also be used for something more visual, such as a diagram, or an image of a scene or product.
6. Take turns
In online focus groups, a turn-by-turn approach works particularly well. It provides everyone the opportunity to have a say, helps minimize people talking over one another, and keeps people from not contributing because they didn’t sense an opportunity. Be sure to vary the order in which participants provide their thoughts on a topic, and allow for spontaneity; i.e. raising hands as in the next tip.
7. Raise hands
When running a group session, ask people to physically raise a hand or wave to indicate they have a comment they’d like to contribute. Not everyone is comfortable with interjecting, and without a full view of body language, cues that someone is ready to speak may be limited. State this as one of your “rules of engagement” at the start of the session.
8. Don’t forget to probe
Probing is essential for digging deeper to find true meaning. This might include playing back what you’ve heard from an individual or the group and inviting feedback. It also helps to ask for more: more specifics, more on how they felt, more on what they meant.
9. Use intentional silence
There’s no need to fill every moment. Give participants (and yourself) a moment to reflect, pause for any additional thought or transition from one topic to the next.
10. One more thing
Always offer an opportunity for further comments at the end of a question area. People will have had some time to digest and may have additional thoughts to add.
Incorporate these tips into your next online interview or focus group project. Doing so will help to ensure that you and your participants have the best possible experience.
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