Having cut my teeth in the backroom of focus group facilities for years, I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical of online focus groups. Sure, there are obvious benefits – geographic diversity, cost savings on facility fees, in-home comforts, etc. But, there are also a great deal of questions for worriers like me:


Will participants engage with each other through a computer?  

The answer is yes and no. They do engage with each other, but it frequently takes them a little while to warm up to the idea. Because we stress not talking over each other, they tend to be more polite, which can sometimes hamper the energy and excitement of collaboration in a live group. The moderator can help to foster this collaboration by asking participants to respond to each other’s comments and by including exercises with group, rather than individual, goals.


Will you naturally eliminate an entire generation who are less comfortable with an online platform?  

It would be easy to write off those who don’t have the technology to enable them to participate. However, you can talk directly with your software provider and recruiter about how they will handle these situations. Most are willing to provide people with cameras and walk them through the setup process. There is also a “host” provided at each group who serves as tech support for those having difficulty the night of. Talking to your partners about your desire to be inclusive is an important first step in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to have their voice heard.


Will you be able to hear and see participants clearly? 

How well you are able to hear and see participants is due to their technology and environment, not to the software you select for hosting the group. The software that I’ve used provides more than acceptable sound and video quality. However, participants can be a challenge. I’ve had issues ranging from poor lighting to bad cell connections to children running in front of the camera. You have to be prepared and ready to address issues directly with participants. In addition, you should consider how you want to handle audio – through the computer or via telephone. Through the computer is more convenient, but you are at the mercy of internet connection speeds. Over the telephone allows the group to continue even if a participant (or, God forbid, moderator’s) internet drops. However, telephone connections leave you reliant on cell signals. Talk to your software provider about what they recommend.


How can I control a boisterous participant if I can’t use the physical tricks that I learned in moderator’s school? 

This was probably my biggest fear prior to moderating online focus groups, but I’ve found that there hasn’t been much need to try to limit the respondent’s. The groups tend to be more moderator led, and that could be because I set them up with warnings of talking over each other. I find that I have to call on people a little more than I do in a standard group, and I’m ok with that. Instead of limiting participants, I think that the challenge is for them to feel comfortable talking openly, and we usually get there. On the occasion that I do have an overly enthusiastic participant, I can usually calm them with some pleasant verbal warnings.


What if they talk over each other?  

They will talk over each other, but no more so than they do during an in-person group. In fact, you benefit because they are less likely to carry on side conversations, which is often the source of some of the “noise” you hear in regular groups. I layout “talking over each other” as a no-no up front and then gently remind folks as it happens.


Or worse, what if they don’t talk at all??!?! 

They will!


Most importantly, can you meet your objectives in such a format?

As with any methodology, it depends on your objectives. I find that the online format works great for ad or concept testing. I feel pretty confident that it’s NOT going to work for taste testing or prototype evaluation unless you send items in advance. But there are plenty of applications for this type of group, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how great they are.