What is an Online Focus Group?

Emily James

Pitch It: The Business Case for Customer Salience

As insight experts, we understand the power of insights, their inherent value in key decision-making...


Emily James

    Keeping close to consumers has been a tricky topic for brands and insight experts all over the world, with innovation continuously generating new tools, techniques and methodologies for stakeholders to choose from and gain impactful insights. But there is one of the most prominent research methods that hasn’t changed, has only evolved to stay relevant and is one of the most effective market research tools to date, and that is the humble focus group.

    Focus groups have been a staple of market research from the very beginning, rivalling surveys in both notoriety and impact in all relevant research experiences. They have been used in many situations from the more obvious product testing to the more niche research experiences, but they all have one thing in common - focus groups are a great way of keeping stakeholders in contact and connected to their consumers.

    In this guide we will explore:

    1. The definition, history and evolution of qualitative research
    2. The three main types of focus group (in-person, text and video)
    3. How to set up an effective and productive focus group
    4. Considerations for running and moderating sessions
    5. Online focus group best practices

    This is one of our longer articles, so if you’re looking for something specific then you can use the quick navigation links above to jump to each section of the guide.

    Online Focus Group Definition

    Cambridge Dictionary defines a focus group as “a group of people who have been brought together to discuss a particular subject in order to solve a problem or suggest ideas”, and in principle, that is a good general definition that works to describe a typical focus group. 

    An online focus group, which we will be talking about in this guide, is a group discussion that takes place over the internet - either through video, an audio call, or a text-based live chat function. Group qualitative discussions as incited by focus groups have a place in market research, but it’s important to know where to use them and when to turn to other qualitative methods. In the past, focus groups have been the place for brands to connect with their customers to refine marketing campaigns and communications, develop services and policies that truly serve a purpose, and explore future opportunities and products that add value to respondents’ lives.

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    Online focus groups are group discussions that take place over the internet, either through video, audio call or text-based live chat - but these focus groups have a lot more to offer than simple conversation.

    Focus Group Evolution and Innovation

    Focus groups have been around for far longer than modern technology. With in-person focus groups dating back to the early 1940s, the concept, techniques and skills to design an impactful focus group have been well-honed over time. 

    Qualitative research methodologies in general have been slower on the uptake of technological developments, however, there has been a surge of innovation that has spurred the radical evolution of qualitative methods, tools and techniques. Focus groups especially have seen a lot of evolution, from the traditional and timeless in-person focus group we have seen new iterations in the form of the online chat-based focus group and more recently online video call-based focus groups. Technology has been the catalyst for most of the innovation regarding focus groups, with it opening up new doors for online focus groups to take place, but also revolutionising how focus groups are designed and the methodologies that can be explored with the right focus group tool. 

    Through technology insight teams can: craft impactful content calendars/schedules; recruit the right research participants in increasingly less and less time; arrange truly enticing incentives; communicate effectively with all involved and arrange the right times and dates with stakeholders and participants in real-time, and much more besides in less time than it would have taken with an in-person focus group. The technological environment these new focus groups take place in also eradicates the need to arrange a physical space for respondents to meet in, and the associated extras such as food/drink and other extra resources that would have come directly out of the research budget.  

    With tools like Focus GroupMR, insight experts can not only talk to respondents face to face, but show relevant images, video and audio stimuli, and use other integrated research tools too as stimuli for further discussion. With the use of quick polls, a show of hands and smartboards as interactive stimuli, respondents and researchers can enrich the participant experience, and give any stakeholders observing live a good discussion and a chance to see insights unearthed in real-time. 

    Advantages of Online Focus Groups

    Focus groups have always been the qualitative way to gain direct access to the voice of the customer. This is the overall summation of the advantages of an online focus group, especially with the increased accessibility to consumers across the world through technological developments like social media meaning we have continuous access to a ready-made pool of passive data and insights all ready to spark further research in the form of online reviews, mentions, comments and interactions between brands and consumers. But there are a lot more advantages that need to be discussed when it comes to gaining direct access to the voice of the customers.

    One of the most sought-after advantages of using online focus groups is a better understanding of consumers when they give research responses. While there are a vast number of ways in which consumers can provide insights (from surveys to passive data collection and behavioural research tasks), there’s something underrated about having a simple conversation face to face and having that interaction, seeing their facial expressions, matching their tone and getting a clear understanding of what exactly it is they mean. We can use focus groups to understand the consumer decision-making journey, a journey that every serious stakeholder has attempted to understand for years, but will also need to continue to understand as it evolves. 

    Another advantage that online focus groups bring is a deeper emotional understanding of respondents. This qualitative method allows deeper dives into single topics to discover passions and grievances. This draws back to the idea of a greater connection that stakeholders gain from focus groups. Connection is one of the biggest drivers of emotional understanding, connection of stakeholders to the insight team, connection of researchers and respondents, etc. The influence emotion has on the decisions made within a decision can be dramatic if we let it, and online video focus groups allow insight experts to harness that emotion, through both a live connection and conversation with research participants and a chance to record the conversations for later review; the latter making the emotional impact of one conversation last even longer.

    Expressive data isn’t the same as emotional understanding, but it’s the pathway to that understanding. Through online focus groups, we’re able to ask questions and get answers that go beyond the simple ‘on a scale of 1 to 10 how motivated are you to buy this product and more into why exactly they like would be motivated, which aspects are appealing and why do they appeal and how the brand and products fit into the lives of their consumers. These types of conversations often lead to the generation of unexpected ideas and interpretation is a key output and benefit of these focus groups.

    Online focus groups can be a key method for creating genuine customer immersion sessions in research experiences. These sessions are designed to directly involve both stakeholders and customers in research, connecting them with minimal interaction from researchers, and enabling them to get close enough to each other so they can see the brand experience from both sides. Some online focus group tools allow for stakeholders to sit in at focus group sessions as hidden observers, while researchers moderate and guide the insight-filled conversation, but these sessions are a key advantage of focus groups as stakeholders and researchers can swap roles; stakeholders can be the ones sitting in and conversing with the participants, while researchers take the hidden observer seat and feed expert tips and guide the stakeholders through the process to make sure the research experience goes well.  

    Lastly, a great focus group is also able to alleviate any stress on the side of researchers, stakeholders, and most importantly, respondents, which helps create a safe comfortable space for respondents to express themselves, and share sensitive data to create actionable insights.

    Types of Focus Group

    Focus groups have been the focus of most qualitative innovation, and as such have evolved over the years with a few versions of the focus group appearing across mediums.

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    Now, there are a couple of different types of online focus group for insight experts to choose from each with their own merits and challenges to consider.

    Physical / In-Person

    While we’re focussing on online focus groups, it’s important to recognise where the online focus group methods have evolved from. In-person focus groups are still a method used regularly today when needed. With the original focus groups being in-person, the typical format to conduct them in was to recruit the relevant participants who were available and able to travel to the meeting, put together a range of questions and prompts to start rich conversations, moderate those conversations to keep them on track and make sure no untoward comments are made, and sort the incentives for them to receive at the end of the session. But therewith good insights came a range of challenges, including:

    • Insight professionals would expect and plan for some participants not to show up on the day, or have unforeseen complications such as illness that would stop them from being able to attend. But however much they plan they cannot catch all cases, and as such these in-person focus groups could be short a decent sample. 
    • Of those that do attend, they might have misrepresented themselves or misunderstood and agreed to participate without the relevant experience or knowledge to contribute well to the discussion, and without the convenience of modern technology, there isn’t time to recruit another participant at such a short notice. 

    However, in-person focus groups were a key method with many benefits that can be derived from face-to-face conversations. The emotional connection that comes from an honest discussion between strangers can reveal a lot of experiences and opinions that can be vital to the progression of a product, strategy or brand experience. This is why it has remained a staple of qualitative market research, and its simple format of facilitating rich conversations between strangers has easily evolved with modern technology.

    “While we use surveys for most of our research, when deeper insight is required we are able to easily [use] qualitative tools such as focus groups and creative studies at any time.”

    - Research Analyst, SkyBet

    Online Live Chat

    One of the first significant evolution of the in-person focus group was the online ‘live chat’ focus group, which is a text-based focus group. In a similar style to a private online chat room, respondents would log in to a research platform or enter through a unique hyperlink and would be led by the researcher/moderator in an in-depth discussion. 

    These live chat focus groups allow researchers and respondents to communicate via text on a laptop or desktop. This format prioritises anonymity for all involved, which helps respondents to feel a little more comfortable when sharing sensitive or significant details of their customer experience or opinions.

    The main benefits of moving the focus group format online revolve around the physical challenges that come with in-person focus groups. Firstly, moving the conversations online means that researchers can eliminate the geographical limitations that impact which respondents can participate; in fact, moving the focus groups online means that insight experts can broaden the range of respondents they can call upon because the geographical limitations do not apply. Because of this, the time and travel constraints are also mostly eliminated, with the travel challenges being non-existent and the time constraints decreasing.

    While there are significant benefits to this online evolution, there were drawbacks too. There are vital aspects of the in-person focus group that aren’t replicable in this particular online format, such as the contextual emotional understanding through the subconscious reading of facial expressions, and the connection that’s built up between people that are in the same room. There’s just something about seeing someone’s face that helps to connect and gauge where the conversation should go next that we cannot replicate in an online text-based format.  

    Online Video

    The next evolution to the online focus group is the closest the insight industry has come to fixing the challenges of both the in-person focus group and the online live chat focus group while keeping the benefits of both. Through the increasingly reliable online video chat functionality that has prevailed with the creation of smartphones and laptops, we are now able to facilitate the face-to-face conversations of the in-person focus group but on an online platform, meaning we can chat to a broader range of people at a time convenient for all without the need for travel or typing.  

    Online video focus groups have been conducted by many in a previous couple of years, with their popularity skyrocketing through necessity driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Online video communication platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams took the brunt of these video focus groups in the early days of the pandemic, giving market research agencies the time to perfect their own video focus group tools such as our own Focus GroupMR. Focus GroupMR is a video focus group tool capable of hosting a researcher, eight participants and any number of stakeholder observers in the observation area. It is integrated into our own platform with its own built-in video library where stakeholders and insight teams can sort through the footage at a later date, and create montages and clips for further distribution within the stakeholder organisation. 

    Tools such as Focus GroupMR have revolutionised the capabilities of insight experts everywhere when it comes to conducting impactful online focus groups that generate crucial data and insights for stakeholder decision-making processes.  

    Setting Up a Successful Online Focus Group

    A great focus group can be a boon to many market research strategies, as it helps to bolster quantitative data with detailed real-world context and explore exciting opportunities with an intimate group. But this can only be done when the focus group is properly constructed, and the recruits are relevant and engaged. There are three elements that can help insight teams construct a great focus group:

    1. Design

    Designing a focus group is the first stage of the research experience. After realising the need for an online focus group, there are two aspects of design that need to be accounted for: the structure the focus group will take, and the content that sparks relevant conversations. 

    Firstly, the task content. The content of the online focus group, whatever form it takes, will need to be two things: relevant and engaging. Relevance is the first element that insight experts need to focus on because without relevant content, there can be no relevant insights. So how do we make sure that the content is relevant? By getting those professionals involved that know exactly what the research objectives are as well as the business objectives and wider business context - the stakeholders. Stakeholders are perfectly placed to cast an eye over any draft research content calendars and task questions to ensure that they will lead to the research experience needed actually comes to fruition. The insight team’s expertise and stakeholders’ business context are the perfect combinations needed to create the right relevant research experience.

    Once the relevance has been established, from there, insight teams can work on making the content engaging. Online focus groups, it isn’t simply about asking the right questions, they ask them in the right order, in the right way, at the right time, and make space for ad-hoc deeper dives too when interesting insights appear. 

    Now this might seem like we’re talking about the structure of a focus group rather than the content itself, and to an extent we are; this structure will be the second key to keeping research respondents engaged throughout the entire session, so it needs to be designed to achieve the maximum impact possible. Asking the right questions at the right time, and using the right stimuli to provoke conversations at the right times can really help capture and maintain engagement with minimal drops in the discussion.  

    2. Sample

    Recruiting the right people is a task in and of itself that can be done before or after the research design itself, and there are benefits and drawbacks to both. Firstly, for recruiting before the research is designed, insight teams are then able to see exactly who they’re designing the research for, and are then able to create the most engaging research experience possible for those research respondents. However, there is always a chance that the respondents recruited might be the wrong ones for how the research design evolves when you take into account relevance. The benefit of recruiting after the research experience has been designed is that you know exactly who the respondents need to be in order to answer the questions to the fullest extent. 

    There are a couple of different ways you can recruit the right respondents, firstly from screener surveys, or insight teams can recruit people from a customer or research database depending on whether the brand has conducted research before. The latter way of recruiting respondents means insight teams have access to a pool of potential respondents who they have some data on already, which will make it a lot easier to understand which of the people in that database will be right for the online focus group task at hand.

    3. Stakeholder Engagement

    As mentioned earlier, stakeholders play an important part in the research design stage. Stakeholders can make sure this design stage progresses well - most of the time, they will have an idea of who exactly they will need as respondents and what questions they would like to ask. Getting stakeholders involved from the very beginning has been known to increase engagement levels in market research, both the experience and the resulting insights throughout the project and after it has concluded. 

    In a blog written by FlexMR’s Chief Marketing Officer, Christopher Martin, Chris mentions six ways in which insight teams can engage stakeholders throughout the entire process. The first is through design sessions, as he notes that “not only does [engaging stakeholders in the research design] provide a forum to explain the benefits of qualitative methods ahead of time, but interactivity improves decision-maker buy-in to the final design.”

    This sentiment is reflected in one of the FlexMR roundtable events that occurred in 2021, where insight experts from a variety of industries discussed exactly how to engage stakeholders early on in the research process, the challenges they encountered while doing this, and the benefits they reaped as a result. The large consensus was that engaging stakeholders in the market research experience through collaborative encounters kept insights at the forefront of conversations and maintained dialogue between insight teams and stakeholder teams across their organisation.

    How to Run a Focus Group Well

    Now that the focus group has been set up well, insight teams can focus on how to make the most of this opportunity and run the focus group to the best o their ability. This is where the insights are generated, so making sure we know how to run the focus group effectively to generate impactful insights while also making sure the respondents are comfortable and settled enough to provide in-depth data is key. There are four elements to running a focus group well:

    The Content Schedule

    This is not something that should be ad-libbed and improvised unless something goes terribly wrong and the content and its structure cannot apply any further. The content and its structure will have been crafted in the research design stage with the input of both insight experts and stakeholders to ensure its business relevance and effectiveness as a research task. 

    Following this content as much as possible will help insight professionals, whether new or experienced to guide respondents through discussions, keeping answers relevant to the question and topics at hand even though as humans we tend to go on tangents in our casual conversations. Following the content structure like this can help insight experts focus on creating a safe and comfortable space rather than having to think ahead to what question to answer next, a space that is conducive to talking about sensitive topics or helping respondents share their personal experiences without fear of judgement or repercussion. This is one of the ways we help increase respondent engagement in focus group research, and leads us nicely onto other ways to increase respondent engagement.

    Participant Engagement

    Participant engagement is crucial to the generation of impactful data and insights, and following a task’s content structure so the insight experts involved can focus on creating a safe space for respondents is one great way to increase engagement - the safer a respondent feels, the more they will be willing to share with the group and with stakeholders.

    Once this safe space is created, all other engagement tactics are more likely to work. Reciprocity is another engagement tactic that will help spur more conversation and insights, and in this regard, insight experts can practice reciprocity in focus groups by participating in the conversation themselves; asking follow-up questions, share experiences yourself (as long as you’re still impartial), and share comments from stakeholder observers, or allow stakeholders to participate in the focus group so they can share feedback themselves. Reciprocity is one of the best ways of recognising participants’ efforts and letting them know they’ve been heard.

    All respondent engagement tactics are centred on building trust between researchers/stakeholders and respondents. Setting up the focus group on an easily accessible and secure platform will indeed help set the foundation for that trust to build on using the tactics above. Using a trusted market research agency with a great reputation to host and conduct the focus group while also taking every effort to make the space as secure as possible so no data is misused or misplaced is key. 

    Moderation Tactics

    Moderation is the heart of an insight expert’s job when the focus group is up and running, it is also one of the trickier tasks at hand as we humans love to go on a tangent in any conversation. In a couple of previous FlexMR blogs, we have outlined a few tips for moderating online focus groups:

    1. Focus - In all focus groups, having a specific topic for discussion helps. But for online focus groups, it’s crucial. There is one thing we can do to help respondents focus on the matter at hand and keep from going on tangents, and that is to release the topic(s) up for discussion to them ahead of time so they can take a look through and prepare themselves for the questions coming at them. They can prepare answers beforehand and then explain further at the time if prompted.
    2. Respond and reflect - a live discussion is just that, so as much as you prepare beforehand as a moderator and researcher, make sure to make some time for spontaneous discussion and unexpected comments will surely arise that will change the way stakeholders think of customers.
    3. Build a rapport - moderators should make sure to connect with participants in an online focus group in the early stages of the task. Demonstrate frequent positive regard for the contributions made but still remain neutral, neither endorse nor censor any viewpoints, but make sure that all know that their viewpoints are valid.

    Focus Group Best Practices

    This last section will be a quick note and exploration of some key best practices for insight experts to help their focus groups flourish. From creativity to understanding their limits, there are a few important aspects to mention before we close.

    The Power of Creativity

    To keep focus groups from becoming repetitive, it’s always good to ask ourselves: how we can use focus groups creatively?

    One of the ways mentioned in our infographic, created by FlexMR’s Sophie Grieve-Williams, is to create what she calls ‘immersive focus groups’. Because online focus groups are a dynamic and interactive tool with significant benefits to insights generation, they should not be used in such a boring way all the time. When testing advertising and communications, for example, these focus group tools could be used to create watch parties like Netflix and Amazon Prime to gain in-the-moment detailed insights from participants, followed by deep discussion. Taking the fun, modern viewing experiences and applying them to focus group techniques means we can create familiar and more relaxed environments for greater insight generation. 

    "The addition of Focus GroupMR text chat into this member-led community offered The Coventry a way to put customers first in a creative way. Reversing the typical focus group setup, members were invited to ask questions to senior management at The Coventry. The direction and focus of these questions highlighted what matters most to the building society’s members."

    - An excerpt from our Coventry Building Society case study

    Getting Agile Qual Insights from Focus Groups

    One doesn’t associate ‘agile’ research with focus groups very often in the insights industry. However, it has been done before. There are many ways of designing, recruiting and conducting surveys in a quick turnaround, from recruiting from the business’ customer database or existing research community to creating simple but impactful content structures, keeping the questions up for debate short and sweet and using moderation to really draw out the best insights possible.

    Agile qual can really benefit stakeholders, as they not only get insights at speed, but these insights aren’t just the surface level directional insights that can inform decisions without stakeholders fully understanding why it’s the best decision, but are in fact the fuller insights that facilitate a deeper understanding of why this direction is the best one to take. 

    Set Group Limits

    Setting group limits of 6-10 is the optimal size for any online focus group. The number is small enough to be manageable for a moderator but large enough to allow true in-depth conversations to take place between participants. Any larger, and there will be some participants who will simply not be able to get a word in edge-wise, and will sit back and listen to the discussion without really participating in it. But any smaller and there won’t be enough opinions and experiences to really get a grasp of the situation.

    However, as with any commitment, there are bound to be some that drop out last minute. Luckily, finding replacements is much easier online than it is in person. Keeping some respondents in reserve can be a good idea to make sure that the group limit doesn’t fall below the desired number.

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    Online focus groups, while derived from a traditional research method, can lead to the most innovative insights and deeper consumer understanding than ever before.

    Use Good Stimuli to Prompt Discussion

    Using images/photos, videos and audio as stimuli are one of the best benefits of an online focus group to date, other than the integration of other tools so moderators can use polls and a ‘raise of hands’ function to spark debate. But in any focus group, there are bound to be points where moderators and stakeholders can share images or videos to get an in-the-moment response from respondents.

    These are particularly useful in marketing or advertising communications testing, as well as more important rebranding or repositioning testing, to make sure that any changes made hit with full impact. It also passes the control over to participants, as they can engage with the source material for a few minutes and prepare points for discussion afterwards.

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