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6 tips for starting an online focus group

Gather consumer feedback faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Focus groups have long been a mainstay of market research strategy, but recent technologies have taken what used to be an expensive, time-consuming process and made it more convenient, cost effective and in some cases, even more accurate.

Here's what you need to know about the advantages of running an online focus group and some of the newer tools available.

1. What is an online focus group?

While similar in many ways to traditional focus groups, online focus groups use conferencing applications to gather feedback from participants remotely. This could range from a conference call and video chat to more sophisticated software applications that allow for real-time polling, transcription and other services.

2. What are the advantages?

The main advantage of an online focus group is the reduced time and resources spent on physically gathering a group of people in a room. By being able to access the focus group remotely, participants can take part from the comfort of their own homes.

Online focus groups also allow organizers to gather feedback faster and more efficiently than before, which is why it’s been widely embraced in industries and sectors that require quick access to information.

For example, a politician seeking electorate feedback on the handling of an emergency situation would previously require days or weeks to gather the necessary data. Between recruiting participants and a moderator, booking space and planning the session, arranging such an event was a huge undertaking. Today there are online tools that allow that same political team to organize groups of voters in an online setting and gather feedback in near real time.

3. What are the disadvantages?

While online focus groups provide speed and efficiency, the benefits are not without a few challenges.

Online focus groups often run the risk of failing to gather the subtle clues and insights that moderators often look for in participant’s body language and facial expressions. There is also the potential to lose the brainstorming quality of traditional focus groups, where participants can more easily build on the ideas of those sitting around them.

That being said, improvements in video conferencing technologies are slowly making such concerns less pronounced.

4. How should I decide between online and in-person?

Online focus groups are best employed in situations that require speed over accuracy, cost efficiency and logistical convenience. However, more in-depth market research and lengthier sessions might benefit from face-to-face communication.

Furthermore, organizations that have access to suitable facilities and a trained onsite moderator will struggle less with the logistical challenges than those that have fewer in-house resources and need to employ a third party provider.  

5. How do you organize an online focus group?

While they do not communicate face-to-face with participants, it’s still very important to have a well-qualified moderator conducting online focus groups.  

The moderator will be in charge of posing questions, probing deeper for more information from participants and keeping the conversations on track. Moderators can make all the difference in getting crucial information from your focus group.

Organizations that conduct frequent sessions may even want to consider having a staff member formally trained. Or if you’re looking for external professionals, search for market research companies like Probe Research, NRG Research, Prairie Research Associates and Viewpoints that can offer focus group facilities and access to qualified moderators in Manitoba and across Canada.

For pure web-based platforms, there are a variety of applications designed specifically to facilitate online focus groups. Companies such as FocusGroupIt and iTracks offer specially designed options, complete with all the tools to get your focus group set up and delivered within the platform.

For a more straightforward approach, it’s possible to utilize other applications you may already be using for video conferencing and digital meetings, such as WebEx, GoToMeeting and Skype. However, these will be far less specialized for focus groups and strip out helpful features of the other options. You’ll also have less functionality for moderator and participant interactions since these are designed more for strictly video and chat. If you consider this route, take the time to do a test first with internal participants to make sure the software meets your needs.

6. How do you recruit participants?

Once a moderator and platform are secured, organizations can take a number of approaches to recruiting participants, depending on their needs. For those looking for a faster track to launching their focus group, iTracks will even provide pre-screened users to get you started. Or if you're looking to survey a very targeted demographic group, you may want to employ the services of one of the organizations discussed earlier.

If you're going to seek out participants on your own, you could start by placing an ad on your social media channels with the promise of some small form of compensation. Offering referral bonuses can also be a great way to multiply your recruiting efforts by getting your network to spread the word. You can also search social media pages to target specific interest groups, such as a certain type of consumer or hobbyist.

Next, consider how you'll send out the invitations. Applications like WebEx, GoToMeeting and iTracks let organizers send a direct link to participants, making it easy for them to join the conversation. Other software like FocusGroupIt also makes it easy to share a secure group link on social networks, custom email lists, websites or other marketing material.

Ensure that you have thoroughly tested the technology before inviting your audience to join. Depending on your software selection and the technical proficiency of your participants, consider the advantages of those added functions against the potential for technical disruptions and errors. For example, if you require all participants to download and install a new application before getting started, you might need to provide ad hoc tech support and assistance if there are any issues. 

On the day of the focus group, it’s important to have your moderator sign into the online meeting application in advance of the meeting time — and if this is your first meeting, be sure to have your own tech support standing by if needed.

With all the right preparation, your online focus group should run smoothly so you can chat with participants and get real feedback that can help you move forward with your business strategy.

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Jared Lindzon

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, covering a variety of topics, including technology, careers, entrepreneurship, politics and music. His work regularly appears in major publications in Canada, the United States and around the world, including the Globe and Mail, Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, Rolling Stone, Politico, the Guardian and more.

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