These days it can be difficult to run traditional focus groups, where people physically sit around a table and share their thoughts about a topic. In this post-COVID-19 world, many of us are concerned that the others in the room might share more than just their ideas with us, and we might catch COVID-19 ourselves! Or perhaps our organisation’s policies have changed and they’re much more likely to ask whether it is really necessary to have physical face-to-face meetings (which we think is mostly a good thing!). Read on to hear our top 10 tips for running effective online focus groups!
Recently we had the opportunity to run a series of online focus groups and we thought you might enjoy hearing our experiences and what we learned along the way. It has been a great chance for us to try some new things and practise our online facilitation skills!
The first step is to be crystal clear why we’re doing it and what we want to get from it, that is, know the purpose! In our case, we were involved with delivering a national RD&E project in Australia and we needed to delve deeper into the results from a large survey we had recently conducted. We wanted to validate those results and also tease out some of the thinking or rationale behind them. Fortunately we had thought about focus group recruitment and towards the end of that survey, we asked if the respondents would be interested in further discussing the topic. That meant we had a purpose for the focus groups and we already had some potential participants!
The second step is designing! This is key for any effective activity and we have referred to this as an important principle on a number of occasions. We chose to run several online focus groups, and we hoped to have five or six participants at each. We were concerned that if we had more people than that, then they might not have enough time to share their thoughts and ideas with us. We have shared previously that the ideal number of people for a breakout room is actually four, and our rule of thumb is to have between five and ten people. We had five key questions to ask and while we might have been able to do that in an hour, we decided to go for 90 minutes. Doing a bit of maths showed us that in an hour each person would only have 2.4 minutes per question, whereas with 90 minutes they would have 3.6 minutes. Plus, we thought it better to invite people for 90 minutes and allow them to leave early if necessary, rather than invite them for just an hour and then have to ask them to stay late. We have never had any complaints about a short meeting! Sometimes it can be tricky to get the right number of people in each group beforehand, without multiple emails or phone calls. To get around this, we created a simple survey with just three questions… the person’s contact details, the industry in which they primarily work, and a multiple choice question asking which one of the dates and times listed best suited them. As each of the time options filled, it was removed from the list. It is a shame that SurveyMonkey does not automate that, so we just kept an eye on the results and manually removed each option once we had enough people.
Thirdly, preparation! In this instance, the preparation was not just about us as organisers, but for the participants as well. We wanted to maximise the amount of participant discussion during the focus group, so we used a flipped learning approach. We emailed the participants some preliminary reading, so they would be familiar with the topic. We provided a range of options: a three page summary of the survey results; the full survey report; and we also provided a link to a short (7 minute) video where we outlined the results. We also sent them the key questions beforehand, allowing them to think about them before they came and maybe jot down some ideas if they felt like it. We know that is not usual practice for traditional focus groups, but we thought it would be helpful for those who like to reflect on questions before answering them. We hoped this would help maximise the quality and quantity of conversation during the discussion, as we felt people would have their answers ready, reducing the number of pauses that sometimes occur.
We sent the participants calendar invitations for the Zoom meetings, to help ensure good attendance. We also sent personalised text messages to the participants an hour or two before each event, saying how much we were looking forward to hearing their ideas. We appreciate that some people might be working in the field, and might easily miss the automated reminder email that was sent an hour before the event. A text message still gets our attention, especially if it’s personalised. Here’s an example of what we said:
Thanks Jo for agreeing to attend today’s online focus group! I’m really looking forward to hearing your ideas soon. Cheers, John.
The fourth step is delivery. This was the fun bit! For each focus group, we entered the Zoom meeting about 10 minutes early to chat about the process and remind ourselves who would be attending. That helped us to focus our attention on it, and to feel present for the participants. At the allocated time, or a few minutes beforehand, we allowed the participants to join the meeting and we casually chatted with each person. We think this helped them relax, to feel valued, and also allowed us to check that the audio feeds were working properly. We then moved into the formal part of the focus group, and said something like the following:
Welcome along! It’s great to have you participating in today’s focus group. We’ve allowed 90 minutes, so you should each get a good opportunity to share your thoughts and ideas with us. Please keep your web cams on and mute yourself when you’re not speaking. One of us will be facilitating the session today, while the other takes notes and asks the occasional question. We’ll send you a draft of the overall focus group report and it won’t attribute any names to the comments, so please speak freely with us today and share your real thoughts and ideas.
We then gave a bit of a prelude to each question and then clearly stated the question we wanted them to answer. Instead of sitting back and awkwardly waiting for someone to respond, we directed the question to particular participants. To ensure the same person did not always go first or last, we mixed up the order in which we invited the participants to respond. This also helped keep it a fairly natural, free flowing discussion. After every couple of questions the facilitator checked with the notetaker to see if they had any questions or comments. This allowed them to check if their notes were correct and to ask interesting follow-up questions.
Towards the end of the session, we asked if they had any final thoughts or extra material they had not yet been able to add. We also invited them to comment on the process and whether they felt there had been enough air-time to share their thoughts with us. It was pleasing to hear that most enjoyed the process, and many particularly commented that they appreciated seeing the questions beforehand. It seems that most had either read the summary document and/or watched the short video. A few did say they’d read the full report too, which was great to hear.
We concluded by thanking them and letting them know we’d send them a draft report once all the focus groups had been run. We were pleased that all the sessions finished either on-time or slightly early. While initially we were thinking we could do it in 60 minutes, we were really glad we went for the 90 minutes, as it allowed much more relaxed conversations.
Lastly, we did some follow-up. We sent emails after each session, thanking them for their time and valuable contributions. We also included a link to some supplementary material we thought they might find interesting, and we reminded them that we’d send them a draft report to review.
The focus groups were a lot of fun to deliver and we learnt a few things along the way, so here are our top ten tips from our experience.
- Do not be afraid of running your focus groups in an online environment. They can work really well and with good facilitation, can produce results equal to the traditional physical ones. Remember, we are still seeing the faces of the participants, so technically it’s still a face-to-face event! As ours was a national project, Zoom was a really easy way to get people involved. Especially as no-one needed to travel or find overnight accommodation. Think of the carbon emissions we saved!
- Keeping the sessions to 90 minutes was a realistic time commitment to ask of the participants. Any less and we would’ve been rushed, and any more, it might have been difficult to find enough people to commit to the extra time. It is worthwhile taking the time to do some maths and make sure everyone will have enough time to talk.
- Using an online survey for people to indicate which dates and times would work for them saved us a lot of admin time. Otherwise there would have been lots of phone calls or emails to sort it all out. We will be using this approach again shortly, based on our positive experience. We had wondered about using other options such as a Doodle poll, but because we needed a suitable mix of people from different industries and roles we needed a way of organising this. With an online survey you can add those as different questions and then you can download the results in an Excel spreadsheet and then slice and dice them to get the desired mix of attendees.
- Reminders are necessary! We thought that having the time as a calendar appointment would be sufficient, but we quickly learnt that extra reminders were needed. Use email and text reminders so that there is no reason for a participant to forget about the focus group!
- Introductions are critical! Not just the facilitators but each participant, as this helps build an environment where participants feel comfortable sharing. In one of the groups we had, the participants ended up sharing their email addresses in the chat box as they had got so interested in the work that others were involved in and wanted to keep in touch!
- Having one person asking the questions and another person acting as scribe worked really well for us. While we could have recorded the Zoom sessions, we would have still needed to type up the summaries. Of course the more expensive Zoom plans do provide automatic transcription, but you then end up with a lot of words that you need to summarise anyway. And for us, having a second person asking supplementary questions worked well.
- It can be hard to keep track of who has already answered the question, so for each session we used a table which listed the participants down the left hand side, and the question numbers across the top. Then as each person responded, the facilitator simply placed a tick in the appropriate box. This was particularly helpful when we kept changing the order in which we asked people to respond.
- Following on from this, we needed to allow time to check whether anyone had a response to anything that was said by the other participants. This is where having two people facilitating is handy, as often the second person can see if someone has unmuted and wants to add something. In our case we both kept an eye on whether participants were unmuting, putting their hand up or indicating in some way they wanted to speak. We got some nuggets from these conversations, so it is worth making sure we have a bit of time to go off script!
- Take the time to get feedback on the process – as any good evaluator knows – when you have a captive audience, take the opportunity to get some monitoring and evaluation data! In this case, we were pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback so we did not need to adjust anything. But if the first couple of groups had indicated we needed to change things, we had the opportunity to do so.
- And finally, have fun! We were talking about serious issues but we tried to help the participants relax and enjoy the process.
On reflection, we thought the online environment worked just as well, if not better than traditional in-person focus groups. We found that the amount of discussion and sharing of information was equivalent and participants were easily able to chime in with extra comments. There was certainly good banter around some of the topics!
So there you have it, our ten tips for running effective online focus groups! And now you’ve read our thoughts, so we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below this post and tell us about your experiences with running online focus groups, including any tips and further ideas. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
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