What are online focus groups?

A common qualitative research method, online focus groups enable researchers to host discussions with groups of participants in real-time. Their purpose is to generate conversation, allowing participants to interact and influence each other.

A successful focus group takes time and planning to arrange, but the result is an in-depth discussion that generates rich insight. The FlexMR InsightHub platform supports both video and conversational chat-based focus groups for complete flexibility. Stimuli such as images, video and audio clips, in addition to interactive tasks such as polls and smartboard markups help moderators make the most of each session – which typically lasts between 60 and 90 minutes.

Interactive activities

Our Focus GroupMR tool supports a range of stimuli, interactive tasks and observer engagement activities.

It is important that participants maintain a high level of engagement throughout the full length of a focus group. To achieve this, moderators must be skilled at directing conversation and encouraging all participants to equally contribute. Our platform supports this with a variety of functions that provide the opportunity for unique and creative feedback. Images, video and audio stimuli can be uploaded to the platform before the session starts, to be displayed at specific points.

Other activities – such as polls and smartboard markup - can provide a short break from the group and further discussion once completed. But it’s not just participants that need to remain engaged. Our platform also provides access to a hidden observer room so that stakeholders can watch live without influencing group responses.

Expert moderation

Our moderators are experienced insight professionals who skilfully navigate complex conversations.

The skill of the moderator is the most commonly cited factor in focus group success. Not only do these researchers need to manage group dynamics and ensure that all participants are comfortable in contributing, but they must balance the need for directed feedback with the natural direction of conversation. To support this process, our moderators produce topic guides that act as important touchpoints throughout the session and distil complex needs into simple notes.

Throughout the session, observers have the opportunity to react and respond via a dedicated host. This facility and connection with the moderator helps our clients make the most out of their sessions by adjusting lines of questioning as needed and in direct response to unexpected outcomes.

Common uses for online focus groups

Focus groups are a versatile option that can be deployed to support nearly any research challenge. However, there are a number of common uses that rely on the unique, real-time group dynamics that they provide. Here are some of the most common applications of the online focus group methodology.

New product development

In-depth explorations of customer needs can provide vital inspiration for new product development.

Idea & concept testing

Focus groups serve as an important litmus test for new products, services, campaigns and more.

Journey exploration

Get to grips with non-linear paths to purchase, varied product usage and complex processes.

Service issue resolution

Often driven by survey results, focus groups can uncover new ways to resolve common customer service issues.

Brand perceptions

Understand the attitudes, values and opinions key market segments associate with your company or brand.

B2B focus groups

Well compensated focus groups can help brands speak with hard to reach and senior B2B audiences.

Exploratory sessions

These groups can help build foundational knowledge on lifestyles, trends and target market behaviours.

Focus group software plus service

We don’t believe in maintaining the status quo. We thrive on making insight more relevant, more accessible and more impactful, while overcoming the core challenges that research, product and marketing teams face.

Frequently asked focus group questions

Structured as a group conversation, online focus groups are one of the most simple and versatile qualitative research methods available. However, getting started can feel daunting - with a number of configuration options to choose from and a significant amount of considerations to balance. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about online focus groups with recommendations from the FlexMR research team.

What are the benefits of online focus groups?

All focus groups, both those that take place in-person and online, provide a group environment where in-depth qualitative data can be collected, and social dynamics can be observed in real-time. But online focus groups also provide a variety of specific benefits that their traditional counterparts cannot.

Geographic Diversity - Without ties to a physical location, online focus groups can more easily represent a wider geographic spread of individuals. Not only that, but the abundance of online sampling and recruitment options makes it easier to reach a greater volume of potential participants - such as those who might have schedules too busy to commit to an in-person session.

Speed and Flexibility - The end-to-end process of setting up, recruiting, fielding and analysing the results from an online focus group is fast. So fast, in fact, that it can be done in a matter of days. This is a big departure from in-person alternatives, which can take weeks or months to complete. With speed comes the flexibility to adapt research on the fly too - adding or extending the scope of groups as requirements change.

Natural Environments - Research has shown that participants are more relaxed, more comfortable and more likely to share their true opinions in their natural surroundings. Participants who take part in online focus groups do so from their own homes, which is often conducive to a better experience and, ultimately, more honest reflections.

What is the difference between real-time and asynchronous groups?

As the role of online tools in market research have grown, so too have the methods available to insight professionals. One area where this growth is especially pronounced is in the diversification of focus groups. Real-time and asynchronous focus groups are distinctly different, but based on the same principle of group discussion. Here's a summary of the biggest differences:

Real-Time Focus Groups - take place in a live environment, lasting on average between 60 - 90 minutes. This form of focus group can be facilitated by video or conversational chat-based methodologies. The role of the moderator is to steer live discussions and strike a balance between required answers and natural conversation. Real-time focus groups can take place as a standalone research method, or as one stage in a multi-method project (often following survey analysis).

Asynchronous Focus Groups - akin to a bulletin board, these focus groups take on an appearance similar to that of a forum. They typically last anywhere between 3 days - 6 weeks and questions are scheduled for release over that period. Moderators encourage participants to take their time and provide well-reasoned responses, in addition to commenting on the responses of others to further the conversation. Stimuli and other activities may be released throughout the course of the question board. Such focus groups can be used as a standalone research method or often concurrently as part of a multi-method project.

What is the difference between video and conversational chat focus groups?

Both examples of real-time focus groups, the choice presented here is in the format of data collected. However there are implications for participant engagement, analysis and reporting too.

Video focus groups use webcams so that participants can see each other and provide spoken answers to questions. These sessions are typically recorded and clips of insightful moments can be edited together after the focus group has closed in order to create engaging video reports. However, video focus groups can be prone to technical errors and require a stable internet connection in order to function with minimal disruption. Overall, these focus groups mimic the in-person experience and provide significant amounts of supporting sentiment data through facial expressions and tone of voice, along with spoken feedback.

Conversational chat-based focus groups still provide a live, real-time environment - but use an instant messenger style interface for participants to type responses. This form of focus group is less reliant on participants' technical set up and internet stability, but trades off the additional context provided by facial expressions and tone of voice. A key benefit of this option is anonymity, which can provide an important degree of separation when discussing sensitive personal, social or political topics.

What factors contribute to the success of focus groups?

There are a lot of factors that will influence the success of an online focus group. So many that it can feel overwhelming. These are the ones that will have the biggest impact:

People - Choose a number of participants that is manageable. For video focus groups, we recommend between 4-6. For conversational chat-based groups, we recommend up to 12. Also, consider the homogeneity of participants. Groups with commonalities, such as members of the same market segment, provide the best results. If you need to research multiple groups, consider one session per group.

Discussion Topic & Guide - Successful focus groups are structured around a well-defined topic, such as a product, process or behaviour. A concise, easy-to-follow topic guide to support the moderator can also be hugely influential in guiding discussions.

Activities and Tools - Don't rely on questions and answers alone. Individual and group activities can provide some of the most valuable insights and resulting discussions. This can include tools built into the platform, such as polls or smartboard markups. It can also cover the use of stimuli and projective techniques - e.g., sentence completion, analogies, role playing exercises and more.

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