I’ve done a lot of focus groups in the past, but had not previously attempted to do one virtually.  In the past two weeks, however, I conducted two virtual focus groups for an education project.

The target audience was people who had graduated from public high schools in Berkshire County, MA during the past five years. My colleague and I were seeking their input into what skills, knowledge, and experience they feel that high school graduates should have to succeed in the future.

We realized that with college students attending classes from home and others working from home, they would be a captive audience that we might be able to reach more easily. By contacting high school alumni who had completed a survey that was conducted as part of the project, we were able to quickly enlist eight participants for each focus group. Out of 17 people who confirmed that they would attend, only one needed to cancel. The process of lining up participants and ensuring that they attended was easier than for live focus groups that I’ve done in the past.

These are five things I took away from my first venture into virtual focus groups:

  1. As with all focus groups, keep the group sizes small. Eight is the most people I would have wanted to have in a focus group, especially a virtual one. A group size of anywhere from five to eight people would have worked well in this setting. I could have asked more follow-up questions if the group had been six versus eight, so I might consider going with a smaller group in the future.
  2.  Fill up the screen with participant’s faces, not written materials. I originally intended to share the screen with a list of the questions as I was asking them to keep everyone on track. After sharing screens during other meetings, however, I realized that it was more important to get a good view of the participants and have them all appear on the screen together in the gallery “Brady Bunch” style.  This provides a feeling of cohesiveness and makes it feel more personal. I repeated the question a few times as we moved through the discussion.
  3. Consider skipping the password and waiting room. For the first focus group, there was no password but I did enable the waiting room. After admitting the first six participants, my screen somehow froze and I couldn’t use my cursor. Then the Apple TV ad popped up and covered my screen. Two participants were stuck in the waiting room. For a scary couple of minutes, I thought I would have to tell everyone to disconnect and start all over. My colleague gracefully stretched out his introductory remarks and by the time he was done, I was back in action. Although I realize that the purpose of the password and waiting room are to make sure you don’t have any intruders, for now I chose to keep it simple by eliminating these steps in my second focus group.
  4. Use a round robin approach for some of the questions. To make sure that everyone got a chance to speak, I used a round robin approach for the first few questions, calling on people one at a time.  I let them know that they could pass if they wished. This ensured that no one monopolized the discussion and that people didn’t talk over one another.  I also think it balanced out the quieter participants with the chattier ones. Everyone got a chance to speak without having to assert themselves into the conversation. Once everyone had answered a few questions, I opened some of the questions up to the group, asking them to raise their hands. This helped move the discussion along.
  5. Take comments in the chat box. I invited everyone to submit comments in the chat box. This was not intended to replace answering questions out loud, but was another option if they wanted to expand on something they said or react to someone else’s comments.  I reviewed the chat box along with the recording of the focus group and incorporated the comments into my analysis.

The virtual format worked surprisingly well. The participants only needed to devote one hour of their time to attending rather than traveling to and from a physical location. They were compensated for their participation with a $25 Amazon gift card, certainly not an extravagant incentive but enough to make them feel appreciated. Everyone arrived either a few minutes early or exactly on time. While there was some small talk in the beginning as people arrived, we were able to get started right on time. Given that they were mostly college students who are now taking virtual classes, all were well versed in the Zoom technology.

Looking ahead to a time when social distancing is no longer in place, I would still consider doing a focus group virtually. It’s a useful tool if you are bringing together participants from different locations and if the people you are trying to reach have access to a good Internet connection and a computer, laptop, or tablet with a camera. While it’s nice to have in-person interaction when people can be in one room together, a virtual focus group can be an efficient way to gather qualitative input.