Best Practices for Online Focus Groups

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Online focus groups are a dynamic, and interactive tool with significant benefits not provided by traditional focus groups. Also known as a live-chat focus group, these act as real time discussion areas which generate quick, yet detailed feedback. In many respects, the traditional focus group formula is left intact.

For example, it is still advisable to ask in depth questions, but those which participants are comfortable discussing in a group. Online formats do provide the safety of anonymity, but participants will still avoid discussing sensitive or private topics. We would also recommend focusing questions on participant opinions and stories, as these will generate discussion.

However, despite these similarities, there are also a number of ways in which the online live chat focus group format differs to the physical format. For that reason, we have put together a short guide to some of the best practices for running online focus groups – to help you make the most of your research.

Moderate Effectively

The first, and most important, point is to ensure effective moderation throughout the session. Much like traditional focus groups, online focus groups require moderation to generate relevant insights. However, the skills required to perform this in an online environment differ quite significantly. While we do provide an online moderation service, if you decide to do it yourself, we would recommend following these guidelines:

  • Give time for responses: writing an answer can take longer than saying one
  • Carefully select follow up questions: some topics may best be discussed in private
  • Loosely follow a script: scripts give structure, but are also restrictive
  • Use topic guides to instantly provide questions to participants
  • Ask for clarification: participants may lean towards shorter answers online

Set Group Limits of 8-10

We would recommend that an optimal size for your online focus group is 8-10 participants. This number is small enough to be manageable for a moderator, but large enough to allow in depth discussions to take place between participants. Of course, with such a small range, it can be difficult to ensure the correct number of participants are available for the activity. Therefore it is important to offer a reasonable incentive for completion. We find £25 is most effective for the UK market.

Also, to ensure that you have enough participants, ask them to notify you if they are unable to attend at the last minute. The earlier you are warned, the easier it becomes to find a replacement. With a large enough sample population, finding a replacement at short notice should not be too difficult (as they only require access to a computer and an internet connection). Also remember to over-recruit for any study, for example aim to recruit 12 participants for a group of 10.

Use Photo, Video and Audio Stimuli

One of the greatest benefits of an online focus group, over a traditional format is the way in which stimuli can be delivered to participants. Rather than showing photos, video or audio clips on a presentation, these can be delivered direct to participants’ computers. This means that participants are able to watch or listen to these stimuli at their own pace, or even re-watch the stimuli at their own leisure.

By passing this control to participants, it ensures that they are engaged with the source material. Not only does this create more discussion, but it also allows participants to analyse the material in their own time and come to more relevant (and insightful) conclusions than in a traditional focus group setting.

Integrate Tasks as Past Stimuli

Another huge benefit to online focus groups is the range of stimuli that can be used. Not only can photos, videos and audio clips be sent to participants, but more importantly past tasks can be integrated into the process. This means you are able to make use of smartboards that provide detailed feedback on specific elements of an image. Polls can also be used to act as a show of hands to establish consensus, using the results to prompt further discussion.

Or, if you have not yet used one of these methods, it is also possible to set participants the task to complete during the focus group and use the final result as a stimulus for further discussion. This level of interactivity both ensures that participants maintain their level of engagement throughout the focus group and can also be used to uncover powerful insights that may not have been available during traditional focus groups.

Encourage Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholders, in this sense, refer to any parties interested in the outcome of the focus group. In physical focus groups, stakeholders are usually represented by the moderator, and do not interact with the participants themselves. In online focus groups, however, there are two levels of involvement that a stakeholder can take.

The first is simply a virtual viewing room with a host, which allows stakeholders and clients to watch the focus group in real time. This is a private area, which is invisible to participants, ensuring their responses are not altered by stakeholder involvement. The second is a much more direct approach, which allows stakeholders to directly interact with participants. While in some cases, this may alter or skew responses, if carefully planned, it can enhance the insights gained from the group.

We believe that online focus groups are one of the most powerful tools available to researchers. They provide all of the benefits of a traditional focus group, including the same level of detailed discussion, however also allow for extra interactivity – a new layer of engagement and results. By following these simple steps, you should be able to make the most out of your online focus group, ensuring the best results for the best price.

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