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A Researcher’s Guide to Online Focus Groups

Very often, we got asked how traditional focus groups can be shifted to an online methodology. In our experience, the motivations for such a shift can be very different: saving travel costs to other regions or countries, an improved feasibility for certain target groups or methodological requirements for answering the research question at hand. Whatever your motivations are, you should be aware that online focus groups, like any other method, are no silver bullet to collecting qualitative data and have to match its purpose. We wrote the following text to help you assess the possibilities and limitations of online focus groups, whatever your individual research question may be.

Overview over the Method

Let’s start with some general methodological considerations. The most obvious point is, that online focus groups do not rely on physical presence of its participants. Instead, all communication is mediated via a software and respondents can potentially connect from everywhere in the world. This allows you to include people from remote places but also poses a challenge to exert control over the interview situation.

Another fundamental consideration concerns whether you prefer synchronous communication (e.g. a video conference in real time) or asynchronous discussions over a longer period of time (e.g. a Market Research Online Community). This will have an impact on software requirements, securing the continued availability of research participants and of course the field time of your project.

You may even consider combining different methodologies in individual project modules, e.g. starting with a short introductory video conference for everyone and continuing with a one week community thereafter. All in all, the boundaries between different research formats are definitely less strict in an online methodology and can be adapted to your specific needs.

Finding the right Participants

Finding the right participants for online focus groups is definitely a topic in itself. For various reasons, we have made the best experiences with recruiting them from our online panels: we have extensive profile data for all our members to select the right target group, we can send reminders via all the established communication channels and our existing incentive system allows us to manage the gratifications in the most efficient way.
But let’s go through these topics one by one.

Recruiting for online qualitative projects has two aspects: the right amount of recruited participants and the right profile of these users. Unfortunately, activity rates can vary a lot in qualitative online projects. This has mainly to do with the continued availability of participants during these typically longer field periods and selecting the right incentive model. As a rule of thumb, you should recruit twice as much participants as you effectively want to participate actively in your study. You will then end up with roughly four groups:

  • No Shows, e.g. due to technical problems or lack of availability
  • Lurkers / Silent Observers: people that log in to your community but don’t contribute to the discussion
  • Regular participants that contribute to the discussions but need constant activation by the moderator (extrinsic motivation)
  • Active participants that contribute extensively to the discussions and have a lot of intrinsic motivation to participate

In order to find as many regular and active participants as possible, the recruitment process has to focus on two things: clarifying the general availability during the field period and identifying respondents that are highly motivated. For the latter, we have had good experiences with psychographic profiling. Especially people with high values in Openness and Extraversion in the OCEAN-Model seem to be a good match for online communities (This also has to be seen in the light of your research question, of course).

Therefore, the initial step for an online focus group is a short screening survey that identifies the right target group, assesses their motivation to contribute actively to the discussions and validates the availability of eligible participants.

Once you have your participant list together, you will have to start inviting them to the actual software / platform for your project. You should then try to make no-shows and lurkers become active members, and keep active members from becoming inactive. This is typically done with sending reminders to all established communication channels. If you are not working with the well-established channels of an online panel (e.g. email, SMS, push notification), this may become the hardest tasks of all and jeopardize the project as a whole.

Incentives may help you to give your participants a little push. Depending on the setup of the project, you should consider a base incentive for participating, but also additional incentives for accomplished milestones, active days in the community or completed tasks. We’ve also had good experiences with offering an additional reward for the most active participant at the end of a project. As you can see, managing the incentives for all participants can become quite complex. This is again why we recommend to use an online panel for recruiting the right participants. It will be one thing less to worry about.

Moderation

Moderating online communities or video chats is definitely very different to doing the same in a traditional focus group facility. As all members of the chat or community are connecting from different places, it is harder to exert control over the interview situation. This affects motivating people who do not contribute enough, as well as dimming down those who dominate the discussion. However, this does not only depend on the skills of the moderator but should also be supported by the software. Most professional software kits offer the opportunity to check the activity level of all participants in a dashboard and take individual measures (e.g. private messages, muting of single members, etc.).

The workload for a moderator during a qualitative online project is also very different, especially if the project lasts a couple of days. Content will be posted at all times, which requires continuous monitoring of what is happening in a community. At the same time, moderators can start analysing the feedback while still being in the field. This allows them to adjust the questions and tasks and dig deeper into relevant aspects. Especially for large and longer-lasting communities, it might make sense to work with a team of two moderators to cope with all the feedback during the most active times.

Software

It should have become clear already, that there is no one-size-fits all approach when shifting traditional focus groups to an online environment. This is reflected in a vast amount of different software providers and tools for online qualitative projects. While we don’t want to single any of these providers out, we can still give you some general recommendations.

Let’s start with the functionality. Some providers are specialized in one single method (e.g. video chats) and have optimized everything around that service (e.g. server performance). Other providers are more like a Swiss Army knife and offer many modules that can be used individually or may be combined over the course of a project. Typical modules are small polls, chats, discussion boards, web cam recordings, image and video upload, mood boards or collaborative whiteboards. Many providers also allow you to create pre-defined paths through an array of these tasks, e.g. having a discussion board until the evening, then pushing a small poll to everyone and once a participant has completed it allowing this individual to participate in a discussion board about another topic. Many software kits also allow you to define individual arrays for different segments of your participants. The possibilities for your research design are almost endless.

A second thing you should consider is the possibility to grant different user rights. The most common roles for qualitative online projects are:

  • Participant: is allowed to participate in the project, but does not have access to the backend of the project.
  • Moderator: can participate in the project, but has also access to the backend in order to analyse the feedback and assign new tasks. This role has also additional tools to moderate the group (e.g. gratification, muting participants)
  • End Client: is not allowed to participate in the project and may have a restricted view on the contents and progress of the project (i.e. due to compliance with privacy and data protection).
  • Admin: is allowed to change fundamental settings of the project (e.g. user rights) and can give technical support.

In some cases, not all of these roles are needed, while other cases may demand for additional roles.

A last major point to consider here are tools to facilitate the analysis for the moderator during and after the project. While an export of raw data is definitely a standard, there are many things that can make the moderator’s life easier. As indicated above, some tools allow you to start the analysis and interpretation during the field period so you can enter into a deeper feedback loop with your community. Standardized dashboards about activity levels, frequent words and popular posts can help you to keep track of what’s going on in your community. The possibility to tag and comment interesting posts for yourself in the backend and organizing your notes during the field time may be another way to go about it. These features can really make a big difference for the moderator.

The Interpretation

Last, but not least, a few words about the interpretation of such data. The data obtained in these projects is already digitalized and, in many cases, does not require transcription. This allows you to use other techniques than in traditional focus groups when analysing it. Sometimes counting frequencies of certain words or concepts makes sense, e.g. in word clouds. You’ll probably have also more demographic background information about the respondents to analyse how single groups of people differ from each other. Try to make use of these opportunities to get deeper insights to your research question.

While the context in which all feedback is generated seems to be less controlled than in a local facility, you will probably also get a lot of authentic pictures and video snippets from the average lives of your participants. This material offers great opportunities to understand consumers in the context of their real lives.

Bottom line

In this article, we have tried to map the most important aspects to consider when switching focus groups to an online environment. Is everything possible? Certainly not! But there are also many new possibilities that can help us to get rich insights about consumers and a better understanding of their everyday lives.

If you have any question how we can assist with your project, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Über Florian Tress

Florian is working as a Marketing Manager at Norstat. Feel free to drop him a line at florian.tress@norstatgroup.com.

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