At FlexMR we are passionate about focus groups. Whether traditional, online in a bulletin board format or synchronous live chat we believe they are a valuable tool; generating rich exchanges which elucidate the subjective viewpoints of consumers.
Recently I have heard group discussions referred to as ‘old hat’ and ‘no longer fit for purpose’. Like any researcher worth their salt — I wanted to understand more. What prompted such a cutting assessment? It transpired, in this particular case, that the output generated was seen as contradictory with other findings from the business and therefore mistrusted as an accurate indicator of customer behaviour.
I would counter that focus groups (both online and off) are still a relevant and valuable part of the researcher’s toolkit. Focus groups have been a tried and tested M/R method for many years. Like anything, familiarity breeds bad habits and I would suggest that many of the criticisms levelled at focus groups come from the application not the method itself. There is an art to achieving greatness. So let’s go back to basics and consider those small things that make the difference in creating a successful online focus group.
1. Richness, Complexity & Subjective
For many clients and researchers, the online focus group is the ‘go to’ research method. I’d love to believe that this decision is based on an appreciation of the benefits of the method but I imagine that’s not strictly true. Therein lies the problem.
Before ploughing in to commissioning online focus groups for your latest piece of insight, it is worth remembering the defining characteristics of the method. The speed and cost effectiveness associated with online focus groups are considerable attractions but alone they are not a sound basis for choice.
Firstly, online focus groups are best suited to research where a rich understanding of complex customer perceptions is desired. Or where there is value in exchanging ideas and embracing creativity. They are an excellent vehicle for generating or fleshing out ideas. If your goal is to identify the what, when or who of a particular topic then an online focus group isn’t for you.
2. Build a Rapport
Like a traditional focus group, the success of the session rests on the skills of the moderator — the importance of this is not lessened when it is online.
The online environment offers a degree of anonymity not found in traditional groups. The lack of human contact, combined with their text based nature can create more challenges for moderation; which if unchecked can affect the quality of the insight obtained. Issues around dominant personalities or bystander participants can be experienced. Additionally, there may be a propensity for shorter answers and less interaction between participants — with the group preferring to respond directly to the moderator.
The last thing an online focus group should feel like is an online survey. Moderators can prevent this by clearly communicating their expectations of the group at the beginning — some participants will assume that they aren’t allowed to respond to others in the group.
In the early stages of the group it is important for the moderator to demonstrate frequent positive regard for the contributions made by participants. Obviously, the moderator must remain neutral neither endorsing nor censoring viewpoints but it is important to bolster confidence that all contributions are valued.
The level of contribution from each participant during the group should be monitored and managed. Private messaging can be a useful tool for reaching out to participants who are not actively contributing — are they struggling to keep up or feeling like they can’t contribute? Armed with this information the moderator can take action, such as allowing more time for responses or giving the individual a platform to speak by directly asking for their opinion. These small touches help foster a sharing environment which promotes free discussion.
3. Keep it Interesting
Online focus groups don’t have to be entirely text based exchanges. It’s a good idea to utilise stimuli to enrich the participant experience and thereby improve the quality of insight generated. Variety keeps participants interested and combats fatigue. Maintaining concentration for 60–90 minutes in a fast paced group can be a tough ask for even the most committed participant. Switching to a smartboard, voting on a poll or watching a video of a new TV ad can offer a much appreciated change of pace. Conversely, these activities can also inject new life into a flagging or difficult to engage group.
Remember, online groups lack the visual cues of traditional groups — you might not know you’re losing them till you’ve lost them.
4. Consider Pre-Tasks
Not every group warrants the inclusion of a pre-task but, where appropriate, they are a great addition. Focus groups can fail to live up to expectations when they require the participants to discuss hypothetical choices. However, asking participants visit a particular store, browse a website or interact with a product prior to the group increases the likelihood that their feedback is not just opinion or gut reaction, but based on actual experience.
The feedback obtained from pre-tasks can also serve to build a better discussion guide prior to the group — these early findings can highlight previously unidentified topics for discussion and guide the moderator on the appropriate level of focus to devote to each section.
The inclusion of a pre-task also seems to have a positive correlation with attendance levels at the group session itself — having committed to the pre-task participants are less likely to fail to attend the actual group.
A word of warning, pre-tasks should be used to fuel the group, either by warming participants up to the topics for discussion or providing experiences to discuss. Do not just repeat the questions asked in the pre-task to the group — this will lead to disengagement quickly.
5. Be Prepared to go with the Flow
One of the common mistakes people make is to overly structure/script the group. There’s a misconception that because the group is based around text you can ‘get away’ with scripting the questions and prompts.
While it is good to be prepared, the moderator role is to facilitate an open discussion. This is best achieved by embracing the unpredictability of a focus group and going with the flow — responding to comments and ideas as they emerge and allowing the conversation to move in unforeseen directions. Sticking to a script is restrictive and can see you missing nuggets of information or only skimming the surface of a particular topic.
It also does not help to create a rapport with the group — it is more likely the moderator will appear ‘remote’ and can undermine the investment participants have in them and group.