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How To Move Your Focus Groups Online

Published 23 Sep 2020 8 minute read

Online qual
Online Focus Groups

There’s no denying that it has become harder to conduct face-to-face research over recent months, which has left researchers needing to transfer their focus groups online, to new remote research methods.

If you are new to online qualitative research, or even if you have experience, it can be a challenging transition. The ways of engaging, and holding the attention of, your participants, is significantly different, and even the idea of probing requires a new approach, among other aspects.

Here at Further we have defined seven tenets of good practice, which we are sharing here, to help you make that transfer from offline to an asynchronous online methodology as easy and productive as possible.

1. Go with the flow

In a face-to-face focus group, you need to pay attention to how you’re going to bring your individual participants together and turn them into a group; this is no different in the online environment. Tuckman’s stages of group development are a useful guide to how to bring people together effectively, and should be kept in mind when planning how to approach the group or community, designing activities and translating a traditional focus group topic guide to an online format.

tuckmans-stages-of-group-development (1)

At the forming stage, when participants arrive, they can feel anxious. They need to learn the ropes, to understand their roles and responsibilities and what is expected of them. As a moderator, whether in person or online, you need to clarify expectations, and model the behaviour that you want.

At the storming stage, participants aren’t yet performing as a group; typically there is some competition, they can struggle to establish how others think, so you need to manage that process, ensuring that people are comfortable to express themselves and that nobody is left out.

Groups them move quickly to norming, which is about collaborating, respecting each other’s opinions and differences. At that point the group becomes more independent and begins to perform on its own. Participants are autonomous, they make their own decisions and solve their own problems, working independently of the researcher, and the community has a life of its own. This is what you are aiming for in a focus group, and exactly the same thing can happen online; it’s productive and generates rich data.

Bear these stages in mind when designing your activities. For example, at the forming stage, you are most likely to choose engaging and light introductory tasks such as “Show us a picture of something that makes you feel happy”. You would need to build trust and rapport, and have the group into the performing stage before you tackle a more serious and deep question such as “What is it like to live with depression?”.

2. Play with time and space

How you interact with your participants in time and space is where the online method is quite different from offline, as you get to engage with your participants over an extended period of time. The pressure is off. Participants have more time to consider your questions, and get to know each other, as well as you and your team.

This means that you can create activities that encourage your participants to reflect on ideas, questions and experiences over time, as the research progresses. You can ask a question at the start of a project, then return to it at the end, to see how time and lived experiences have affected participants’ perspectives. For example, in a project about wellbeing, you might ask people at the start “What exercise will you do this week?” and they will tell you “I’m going to go to the gym every day” or “I’m going to run a marathon”, but when you check in at the end of the week they will say “Oh, my kid was ill, and actually life got in the way”. So you get really interesting comparative data points.

As well as asking questions at different points in time, you can also ask on a continuum; people can report on experiences and ideas as they happen over that time using, for example, a diary. You can also join them in the moment, and get them to take you on a journey with them. For example, we love using video safaris to explore a participant’s experience, or cupboard deep dives, to learn more about their lives. Again, in a wellbeing project, if a participant tells you they are healthy and clean living, but shows you a picture of their cupboard and you can see 17 packets of hobnobs, you have another really interesting comparative data point.

The asynchronous online qual format gives you the time and space to create activities that, due to time pressures, would be difficult to do in a focus group, or even in a longer workshop. For example, you might ask “draw me a timeline of your life” or “create a product” or “come up with your own presentation.” Thinking back to the stages of flow, one idea is to build towards a period of creativity at the end of the community, after participants have been exposed to stimuli and ideas and interactions, they have been primed to be at their most creative and innovative.

The format also gives you more control over the group dynamic. You can track exactly who has responded, and prompt so you get an answer to each question from everyone. You can also reduce bias by choosing whether you would like participants to provide their individual answers first, before seeing what others have posted, or whether they can read and be inspired (or biased) by others’ answers.

3. Enjoy the creative freedom

Another way in which online communities depart from focus groups is in the freedom you and your participants have to make creative use of multiple media. Online communities enable you to move past simple questions. If you were to take an offline focus group topic guide and transfer it directly online, you would be missing the opportunity to use images, photos, video, and audio to reach into people’s lives and emotions. You can create projective activities that enable you to get under the surface of what people think and feel, and you can make the process much more fun and engaging for participants too. In the example below, we asked participants to tell us, using images, what teamwork means to them.

Picture 1 (1)

Think about whether you are trying to capture in-the-moment, spontaneous reactions, or more reflective, thoughtful responses. Most platforms have a wealth of tools to help you, such as ranking tools and heatmaps to get quick reactions, or diary tools to capture detailed multimedia input over time. You can ask people to film their reactions to the activities you have set them, or to points in a consumer journey – such as unboxing a new mobile phone - or you can ask them to capture audio that sums up their favourite place – seagulls at the beach, a bustling restaurant, or children playing in the park. The possibilities are limitless, so have fun with it, and your participants will too and, in the process, will reveal more about themselves than in simple question-based activities.

The online qual format also gives clients a lot more freedom to influence the discussion and ensure their research needs are met. Clients are able to observe all the activity taking place, as it unfolds, without having to give up an evening to attend a group. They can’t interact directly with the participants but can ask the moderators to probe for additional information on any topics of interest as they arise.

4. Don’t be put out by your output

Another other key consideration when you are designing your online qual discussion guide and activities, or translating your focus group guide to an online format, is to think carefully about the output that you want. One of the great things about online qual is that you get a lot of data. Text answers are there immediately without transcription. Video and photo content arrive seamlessly, and other documents and files can be shared at the drop of a hat. However, one of the most challenging things about online qual is also that you get a lot of data. For example, videos are great. Clients love them – they can see the consumer in the boardroom – but unless you have the budget for transcription and editing, video can become incredibly time consuming for the research team. If you set 50 participants a task to each create a five-minute video, you end up with more than four hours of footage to sift through. That’s longer than The Fellowship of the Ring. So, it’s crucial to think about what output you want, and how the tool you’re using can help you achieve this.

For example, if you are using a sustained diary task, and asking people to explore and capture their thoughts and feelings minute by minute, you can make the output more manageable by using closed questions, so you don’t end up with reams of unstructured data. You can get feedback on adcepts or products using pin and heat map tools, so you get a simple visual output. This example shows how participants have put pins into scenarios that have affected them in a discussion about women in sport.

Picture 2 (1)

If you do use video, make sure you help the participant to focus the output. Set a time limit and give them a structure – for example “video the three things you would like to say to the CEO of this brand”. Not only will that keep them on task, but it will also help you manage the data and organise the analysis.

Finally, find a platform provider that will support you, and give you more than just access to the software. Suppliers who are also researchers will understand your research needs and can provide guidance and support. Many also have free tools and resources to help you get the best insights possible for each brief.

5. Bring the noise

One of the key advantages of online communities is that you reach people in their own environments, and can conduct research in the context of the topic under examination – watching them shopping or cooking or working. This does, however, mean that you have to contend with whatever distractions might be present. There isn’t the same social pressure to take part and conform that might exist during an interview or focus group, so you have to design your group to be as engaging as possible.

Charisma is one of the most powerful tools in the qualie’s arsenal; we use it in person to build rapport and get the most from our participants. Online, you don’t get to be present with the person, so you need to find a way to transfer that charisma and energy to your topic guide and activities.

Think about your audience, know your purpose and make sure your tone of voice and language is right. Use welcome videos or visual stimulus to introduce yourself and your project and bring some personality to the community. Make sure you respond quickly at the beginning of the process, to show that there is someone on the other side of the computer who is paying attention, and follow up contributions with likes, probes and additional questions. A little humour can help to bring the group together. Even small tweaks such as formatting your text with bold or italics can help to add personality and clarity.

6. Be specific

It might sound obvious that your activities need to be clear and specific, but it is easier said than done. When you are face to face, you can try as many times and ways as you need to coax the answer out of a participant but, online, if they don’t understand your task first time, or get the wrong idea, it’s hard to go back and get them to do it again. You need to be clear about the objective behind the activity, and the detail of how to go about it. So, for example, if you are asking participants to keep a diary they need to know why and what steps to take. Should they write at the same time every day? Or in the moment? Should they include images or other media? Will the diary be shared with other participants or just with the researchers and moderators? Will they need to refer to it in later activities?

One way of ensuring that participants understand your instructions is to ask a colleague who isn’t involved in the project to check your activities. Make sure your language is straightforward, mirroring the language of the participants. For example, don’t use jargon such “Tell us about your face cream purchase journey” or “What touchpoints connect you with this brand?".

Another area that participants can find confusing is if each activity has too many complicated elements or separate stages. It’s better to break activities up to keep each one specific and simple.

7. Stay two steps ahead

As with any topic guide, your online qual plan provides an outline of the questions you’re looking to explore. Participants will tend to follow your plan in order, but there is still plenty of space for exploration – and you can build this in at the design stage. In the same way that you would leave space at the end of a focus group to discuss insights that have arisen, you can also leave space at the end of your online project for an activity that builds on insights. It’s a good idea, as we mentioned earlier, to leave the most creative activities, such as the example below, for the end of the project.

Picture 3 (1)

In order to do this, you will need to work with your client to build in sufficient time for analysis as the project progresses, and you need them to be open to the fluidity of creating new activities on the fly. If this is too challenging, you can always complete your project in separate phases – start with an exploratory phase, then work with the clients to come up with propositions which you can look at in an evaluation phase, and then add a creative phase at the end.

You might also consider using a completely unstructured space - either a 'community forum' or a dedicated activity - where participants can raise issues they feel are relevant to the topic but haven’t been covered by the activities. This 'bottom-up' approach can be very useful when the topic is complex and the research is genuinely exploratory, often surfacing unexpected and important themes.

If you just remember three things

We’ve summarised the seven tenets of best practice into a system we call “The golden triangle”. When you’ve written your activity guide for your online qual study, look at each activity and ask yourself these three questions:

Golden Triangle (1)

If you answer all three of these questions, you have designed the perfect activity and are well on the way to becoming a master at online qualitative research.

If you need further support and advice, why not book a call now with one of our experts now.

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