How to run efficient online focus groups

It’s just efficient on all fronts to conduct online focus groups. You can connect with consumers no matter where they are and virtually have a live discussion with them.

This article discusses the following:

"Technology is absolutely an enabler. The fact that you can speak with more people than you physically can in person - you just couldn't do that before."

Of course, there’s a time and place for in-person focus groups. But the advantages of online focus groups include:

  • You can reach a wider group of consumers regardless of location or travel availability.
  • Responses are genuinely personal. You can see their facial expressions as they share their authentic feedback.
  • The analysis is easy and already in a digital format, which makes all aspects of research and sharing quick.

What is an online focus group?

An online focus group, at times, is also called a virtual focus group. Either way, these are live discussions between consumers and brands. They happen at a particular time, but the consumers and the researchers are not in the same location.

Online focus groups are easier than ever because of how mobile and video technology have been changing the way people interact and the way we research.

More people are working with video than ever before. Even before COVID-19, a total of 93 percent of companies were using video for multiple use cases. With the pandemic, video communication has become even more prevalent.

Today’s technology advancements mean researchers can uncover complex thoughts and deliver compelling insights faster than ever.

Read next: Getting leadership support — and keeping it — for internal market research

Online focus groups allow you to uncover customer stories and get closer to people’s thoughts. From there, you can make informed customer-centric decisions.

There are reasons for when you want to prioritize virtual over in-person focus groups. - Jamin Brazil

Why use virtual focus groups?

Jamin Brazil, managing director at Voxpopme, breaks it down into several reasons on an episode of the market research podcast “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.”

Online focus groups will help researchers understand why consumers do certain things because they are conversing with them.

“Quant tells you the what, and qual tells you the why,” Jamin said.

Decreased cost

Virtual focus groups eliminate travel costs. Consumers can participate from wherever they are with an internet connection and a computer, smartphone, or tablet.

“That creates a big benefit for the bottom line of the research budget,” Jamin said.

Read next: What’s the purpose of an online research community?


It’s more convenient to meet virtually than in-person, especially when travel is involved. However, even when travel isn’t involved, consumers would still have to get to the location of the in-person focus group.

Wider reach

“It used to be that there were niche audiences that you simply could not do focus groups with,” Jamin said. “Maybe it’s the elderly, the young; maybe they are poor. You can’t reach them or get them into a facility. So in that world, we didn’t do focus groups with that subset of consumers.”

But now you can do focus groups with all those groups of consumers.

"If you are not limited by geography, you can talk to more people." - Jenn Vogel of Voxpopme

How to run a virtual focus group

To get started, ensure participants are set to go from a tech perspective. For example, are they in a location with internet and able to participate and give their undivided attention?

Getting started

At the beginning, ensure you appropriately welcome the participants, explain the process, verify who everyone is and that it’s the right focus group for them.

“Build some level of rapport as the moderator and to some degree interpersonally,” Jamin said. “It’s important that this person feels comfortable with the moderator. Those first five minutes of the focus group are just rapport-building.”

"There needs to be a framework so people know what it is they are going to be talking about." - Jamin Brazil

Introduce the objectives and topics

Early on, explain the objectives of the focus group and remind people of the topic.

“So people have a real idea and clarity on the conversation track,” Jamin said.

Read next: What makes a good discussion guide?

Set an agenda

“I also like to set an agenda with the topics,” Jamin said. “It may be very high-level, and ‘we are going to talk about these three things.’ But that gives them a sense of what the journey will look like.”

Asking good questions

How we ask questions can help us get better and more valuable answers. I discuss that topic in more depth in this article:

How to write research questions

Especially in focus groups, asking “why” a lot can help you get a lot of answers, Jamin said.

“Asking ‘why’ a lot can lead you down this really interesting path of discovery to consumer behavior,” he said.

Consumer insights leader Brian Monschein on his “BRIght Ideas” podcast said that he recommends asking questions in this format: Start with broader questions and then get more specific – like a funnel.

Examples of question progression

“Having a good flow is key because you don’t want it to come off as jumping around,” Brian said. “Respondents could get confused, and you might lose them mid-discussion.”

Give respondents time to talk

From there, make sure to ask the best questions and give respondents the time to think, respond and discuss their thoughts.

"That's a really important part to ask pointed questions, but in a way that is respectful."

This also includes allowing quiet time. Don’t fill the space as the moderator when nobody says anything for a bit. Let people think; on the flip side, participants might also feel like they want to fill the space so they will continue the discussion.

With the help of a discussion guide, have a roadmap of what you are trying to accomplish, but be flexible.

“They may end up taking you in a different direction which is worth exploring,” said Brian. “You might uncover some hidden gems that you weren’t even thinking of.”

On the flip side, a good moderator can bring the group back to the topic at hand when a discussion is about something totally unrelated, Brian said.

Read next: Best practices for survey design in research

At the end

Take a few moments at the end of the focus group and summarize, and don’t stop recording until everyone has left.

“I don’t end the recording until everyone has left the session,” Jamin said. “And the reason is there’s something that happens; every moderator I’ve known will tell you that some of the most important stuff they get happens after the cameras go off. The reason is that participants move out of a performative framework into more of a human connection.”

Analyzing data from an online focus group

There’s no need to wait weeks or even days for videos from online focus groups to be analyzed. Today’s technology means that responses are transcribed within minutes of being recorded, and video can be delivered and analyzed shortly after that.

Additionally, your videos can be filtered and quickly searched with interactive charts and word clouds, making it easier to analyze and explore your online focus group.

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What’s a question you’d like to ask consumers?