While online focus groups have been in use for a long time, it was not until recently many insights professionals began experiencing the significant advances in online qualitative research firsthand. In response to COVID-19, in-person qualitative projects had to either shift to virtual studies or inevitably be delayed. It was in this shift from in-person to online, many discovered some of online qual's newer digital capabilities. From higher-quality video recordings and AI transcription services to sentiment analysis and quick polling options during groups, improvements have made online research easier and more viable than ever. However, no matter the advances in technology, the outcome and experience of a qualitative study still requires a human touch.
Smoothly running an online project, especially when more accustomed to working with in-person groups, may seem like a daunting task. One of the main challenges is being able to provide exceptional customer service while navigating new technologies and working with a partner that can assist with tech support. A successful online study requires a total blend of all of these so whether you are performing virtual research for the first time or the hundredth, here are 8 great tips to keep you comfortable, focused on your project, and able to create a great experience for everyone involved.
1. Avoid Using a Video-Conference Only Platform
The most popular video platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting, or Google Hangouts are designed for video meetings and conference calls, not market research.
- The most important reason is the lack of technical support. Who is going to take care of a dropped participant? What if the internet connection is poor and you freeze in the middle of your discussion? The moderator is the one who would handle this. With research-only platforms, a human component is available; tech support is "sitting" in the background, only a click away from help.
- When using a DIY approach with a video conferencing system, the moderator does not have options for privacy if re-screening is needed. Muting everyone else on the call is cumbersome and time-consuming. With a research-only platform, you can start your sessions on time by having re-screening built into the project, or allowing multiple people on your team to handle the re-screens independently and privately.
- Chat functionality can be a great asset for online focus groups. Free or nearly free services are typically limited to one at a time or with everyone. This creates a need for the moderator to carefully monitor his/her chat streams, which leaves room for error with the client. Simple chat requests for tech support can completely undo a session that is really working well. Having a host on the platform with full administrative functions allows for a more professional approach where the moderator can focus on the research while someone else is managing the flow of the room and can deal with any technology issues as they arise.
- While the moderator can share screens with free or nearly free services, they cannot pre-load stimuli. To share views, everything needs to be on multiple tabs on your internet browser, and all project files open on your desktop. Even with everything prepared, screen shares are less professional, can share unintended documents, and easily distract respondents from the engagement you are trying to elicit. And forget about leaving your email up just in case someone needs to reach you during a session!
2. Start with 6
As the saying goes, "Too many cooks spoil the broth." The moderator + 5 participants create great engagement. This number facilitates moderator interaction, and the participants feel like they are interacting with each other, similar to an in-person focus group. If you move beyond this number, make sure you’re prepared with more resources like handling small questions via private chat, or having a shared discussion plan to not only stay on topic, but make sure all voices are being heard.
3. Pace Yourself
Many moderators think the ideal timeframe for online focus groups is 90 minutes. Certain topics may require more, but if so, be sure to review the discussion guide in search of areas where time can be saved. If necessary, ask respondents to allow for two-hours for the first group you conduct, and learn from that experience.
4. Don’t Skimp on the Recruiting
All standard protocols for in-person focus groups apply to virtual sessions. Just like a great recruiter checks to make sure the respondent has the right address and details for an in-person meeting, the same applies for remote research. As everyone has a varied experience with technology, it’s important to be sure all respondents show up early to login and get situated.
Providing specific expectations to participants about finding the right location from which to join will help minimize distractions and interruptions. Reminding respondents that sessions are recorded is a great way to explain why they might consider what is showing in their background. Taking quality recruiting seriously cuts down on no-shows, delivers the right respondent and ultimately provides the best insight.
5. Engage Your Participants with a “Homework Assignment”
This task is not just about capturing data for your client but about getting participants ready and in the mindset for the video discussion. It fits in well for the 'get to know you' section at the beginning of the group and involves participants right away, giving everyone in the group a chance to talk.
Advance assignments can be fun or very serious depending on the topic of the study, but consider starting any assignment with something lighter in acknowledgment of the people in the study. When they feel heard even about something small or personal they will be more likely to speak up and share more intimate details of their experiences or opinions.
6. Make Sure to Include Video
Keeping video on provides more accountability to attention and focus, especially if the sessions are long. Seeing pensive facial expressions can alert you to how different personalities process information. Monitoring facial expressions might lead you to ask a “wallflower” specifically to share their opinion, or if someone winces – even subconsciously – you can ask into the reaction.
7. Create Virtual Cross-Conversation
Moderators have a lot of techniques to keep the conversation moving. Focus groups can be incredibly dynamic when the conversation moves in multiple directions and not just from moderator to respondent and back. Here are a few ways to change the flow:
- In some groups you might have a strong communicator who typically leads each response and then others follow by agreement. Avoid 'group-think' by having respondents answer a question silently, then ask them to jot down their commentary. By using a quick writing exercise, others in the group have a chance to collect their own thoughts without being swayed by the other voices. Instead of responding to the moderator directly, you can create a different dynamic by having them share their written response with the group via chat or open-ended poll. This exercise gets them actively sharing their opinions with the group instead of just with the moderator.
- Being mindful of eye contact can add to the conversation and help increase engagement. To help increase eye contact among participants, have the group ask each other questions. Although moderators can often be busy with their notes, it is important to take this advice to heart and look for eye contact when questions are posed. A brief pause after a question is asked can add sincerity to the moment and elicit a more natural response.
- Most moderators are great storytellers. You can encourage dialogue and cross conversation with well-planned visuals and storytelling. Well-crafted stories with a predictable arc keep the listener’s interest piqued. Take turns asking different participants to tell a story of their experience and encourage them to build off stories they are hearing in the group.
8. Play Show and Tell
The most popular kid in kindergarten was not the one who told you about the Rubik’s Cube, but the one who brought it to class. Even if you can’t be in person and let the participant touch the object, you can plan a good technical and descriptive demonstration. Breaking up conversations with displays of objects, visual enhancements to stories or interesting objects can lead to bigger breakthroughs in creative thinking and more natural and expressive dialogue.
Moving your in-person study online? At Fieldwork, we’re all about making every experience the best it can be. From recruiting to scheduling, technology to invoicing, we handle every aspect of your project with expertise.