We are doing more and more online focus groups. We’ve always done some, but have noticed in the past year that we have definitely “crossed a chasm” and there is now heavy interest in online focus groups.
My take from conversations with clients is that this interest in online focus groups is caused by a mix of the technology getting better and people just plain getting used to the idea. It’s a typical technology adoption curve – in the beginning it is different and you’ve never done it before so it feels risky. Then you do it once, realize it can work, and from then on you’re a convert.
I’ll admit – we’re converts. I’ve heard people online saying that online focus groups are frequently pushed because researchers are too lazy to travel. That’s not us. We LOVE to travel. I look forward to those crazy New York/Chicago/Denver/San Francisco weeks. Throw in some Europe and Asia and I’m in heaven. So we’re converts in spite of the fact that we have to stay home to do research. You can reach so many more people and include participants from the non-major cities that are an important part of the target audience – all for the same budget.
That said, online focus groups are different. It is challenging to keep people focused, especially our IT participants that have email and IM and texting all distracting them during the group. Here are three of our best tips that we’ve learned over the years:
1. Have a Smaller Group
We’ll usually recruit eight IT professionals for an in-person group. For online groups, we recruit six. It’s hard enough keeping these IT guys engaged and off their blackberries and iPhones when you’re in the same room, it is MUCH harder when you can’t see that they’re doing email instead of talking to you. Smaller groups mean the participants each have more active time and are less likely to tune out.
2. Have a Strategy to Keep Intros Short
When possible have the moderator touch base briefly with each participant the day before – this works best when doing customer research. Get the basics on what they do and put that on a slide to share with the group. Cut short the “round the table” introductions and move to the more interesting and engaging topics. We usually use a slide to share first name, industry, and major infrastructure or application responsibilities related to the study. Then in the “round the table” intros we try to do something more interesting like where they went on their last vacation or their best “silly question a non-geek asked them” story.
3. Use the Tools
Every time you call on a participant you grab their attention. You can also grab their attention by switching the visual or adding a poll. Find ways to use the online meeting tools in an interesting way. Use them as a whiteboard for capturing notes, list talking points to enforce the spoken word, use declarative statements for the discussion and write those down in a prepared slide rather than just reading from the guide.
Online focus groups definitely require planning and preparation to keep participants engaged, but with a bit of effort, the results are fantastic.