Introducing virtual focus groups! Your new favourite research method. It’s exactly the same as an in-person focus group but you’re doing it online and through a screen instead, which means you can use this method to continue with your research as you would in any other ‘normal’ circumstances (whatever that means these days). It’s easy to substitute where you would have had an in-person group, and with so many people now working / staying at home, there’s actually no better time to carry out this research! There’s a captive audience waiting for you at the other end of your screen – conducting this research is more important now than ever, as it not only contributes towards positive change but will also help people think about something other than what’s happening out there.

If you want a little help with ensuring that your research can continue through this uncertain time, get in touch! We have lots more than virtual focus groups to talk about!

Why are virtual focus groups used?  

Virtual focus groups aren’t just for situations of national emergency but are actually an incredibly useful alternative to in-person focus groups which may not be feasible. Although in-person focus groups are useful, the distance required for travel, the means required to travel, having to leave the home and the risk of being identified are just a few things which can deter your target audience from engaging. The fear of being identified by others is a particular deterrent when you intend to use your focus group to discuss a sensitive topic, such as sexual health.

Virtual focus groups offer an alternative method of conducting this important research without these deterrents. Your participants will not have to leave their home and can choose not to be on video if they are worried about being identified by others. Virtual focus groups are used when meeting in-person just isn’t feasible. For people with an online connection and digital literacy, they can be more accessible and allow in-depth discussions to take place whilst maintaining an increased degree of anonymity for those participants who don’t want to share their identity. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their flaws…

Pros and cons

Virtual focus groups are great because:

  • They can be done from literally anywhere, which is particularly useful today;
  • They can provide more anonymity than in-person groups, which may encourage participation from your participants;
  • They are incredibly easy to set up and save a lot of time and money otherwise spent on finding appropriate venues and / or facilitators;
  • You can record the session as a video (with informed consent of course!) without any extra software, making it easier when it comes to transcribing and analysing the session’s content;
  • Participants can use ‘chat’ functions to privately voice their opinion which they would have otherwise felt unable to share in an in-person group setting;
  • They can bring together people across the country without requiring travel; and
  • There’s no shortage of platforms to facilitate them, so finding a venue is easy.

However, virtual focus groups can have their flaws:

  • They are not accessible to people without an internet connection;
  • Not everyone has the digital literacy to load and participate in digital focus groups;
  • Poor connection can cause delays in speech which could have a negative impact on the session;
  • It’s harder to read people’s body language, which can make it difficult to know when to speak;
  • People may disengage if the focus group requires them to set up an account with the online platform used; and
  • You lose that personal connection you would have otherwise had with in-person groups.

As you can see, there are both pros and cons to doing a digital focus group, but the same applies to in-person focus groups. We don’t think one is better than the other (because all research is great!), but that when your research is faced with a barrier, there is always an alternative option that can gather just as much insight as your preferred method.

How do I do a virtual focus group?

Focus groups, through whatever means, can be tricky. You need to be sure that you have a facilitator who is experienced in leading these groups as they will be able to lead the conversations to draw out key themes and insights, steer conversations which become irrelevant to the topic area and approach sensitive topics in a way which will not offend participants. If you’re looking for someone to conduct your focus group, get in touch with our experienced research team to see how they can help.

Once you have your facilitator, you need to consider what online platform you would like to use to host your focus group. There are many apps and online tools which you can use to host your digital focus groups. Examples include Zoom (which we are loving for our co-creation workshops!), Join Me, Skype and Microsoft Teams. All of these allow you to host and invite people to a video chat. They have a screenshare function which is great if you want to show something to your participants, e.g. concept art for a campaign or a video to discuss further. This screenshare function is particularly useful if you want to conduct a co-creation workshop with your participants to gather their feedback on initial campaign materials.

In addition to screensharing, these online platforms also have a chatroom function, allowing for your participants to privately share their opinion if they do not want to discuss it in front of the other participants. Personally, we’d recommend Zoom or Join Me, as only the host is required to have an account for these sessions – participants can simply click on a link and input their name / anonymous code and join.

Unfortunately, some of these platforms require a paid subscription. It’s therefore important that you work with your facilitator to find out which platforms they have access to, and which they would need to gain access to in order to support your work. Many also tell you that you have to upgrade to get advanced features that could be useful to your focus group. 

So, you have your facilitator and online platform. Now, you need to start thinking about recruiting your participants. Incentives (such as shopping vouchers) are the best way to encourage people to participate in your research. They are also a nice way to thank your participants and show them that their time is valued. Incentives can also be purchased online and sent by email as a code - which is great. Once you have decided on your incentives, consider using paid social media advertising to advertise your digital focus group (and your incentives) to your target audience specifically. At this stage, asking them to complete a quick survey asking for demographic information (i.e. name, age, postcode, relationship status, etc) and contact details can help to ensure that you recruit a range of participants within your target audience. Alternatively, speak to your research agency or supplier who. can access a panel of people and recruit on your behalf. 

Finally, and most importantly, you need to obtain signed informed consent from your participants. It is essential that you are transparent with your participants, explaining what the focus group will entail, the reasons for the research and how their personal data will be used in terms of analysis and reporting. Make sure that they are aware that they can withdraw their participation at any time. Following this information, participants need to a) consent to participate in the focus group, and b) consent to be recorded (if necessary). When they have electronically signed and returned their consent form, and only then, can you share the link and password (if applicable) to the focus group. They cannot participate if they do not consent to participate, and you cannot record the group if at least one person does not consent to being recorded.

You’re ready to go!

Once you have your facilitator, online platform, participants and informed consent, you can go ahead with sharing your focus group link and crack on with the session. Once the session is complete, you need to download your recording and transcribe what was said and by whom – if someone did not consent to being recorded, you will need to take notes during the session in place of this. Anonymise your participants and give them a code known only to you. Data protection is a key part of all research, from obtaining informed consent to collect this data to treating the data with the utmost confidentiality and ensuring that identification of individuals is not possible. Our team has undergone GDPR training and adhere to the Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, so they are well versed in this process. If you are still determined to go alone, we advise you to review this code of conduct. 

Once you have your anonymised transcript, it’s time to go ahead with your qualitative analysis to pull out key themes and insights relating to your topic area which can generate those important changemaking recommendations. Again, we’d recommend using experienced researchers for this stage, as they are trained in pulling out key insights often overlooked by others. To go one step further, we’d recommend using our own fantastic research team, who helped identify key insights that informed our award-winning campaign ‘Jiggle Wiggle’ (read more here!).

In these uncertain times, it can be difficult to think about next steps and even consider how research with people can carry on as normal. However, we believe that it is important to continue research to enable positive change, and we’re certain that we can help you ensure that your important project goes ahead.

We ourselves have had to adapt – conducting research we would have initially done in-person through digital means or over the phone. However, we are continuing to collect important insight and supporting our clients to enact positive change, and we believe that we can support you too. So if you want to discuss a project, or even if you just want to chat with someone real, about research, and importantly, virtual focus groups, please get in touch.