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online focus group: 5 pitfalls to avoid

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Conducting focus groups remotely has never been easier than since the Covid crisis. Everyone is now used to the use of video conferencing software. However, there are many pitfalls. Since the Covid pandemic, we have realized online focus groups with no less than 500 people and have been confronted with 5 recurring problems that we detail in this article.

Online focus group: the correct number of participants

If you decide to organize an online focus group, you will have to recruit participants. The comparison with a classic focus group (face-to-face) ends there. The online mode poses several difficulties:

  • attention is more difficult to maintain online than in person
  • more complicated interactions between participants

Based on several dozen focus groups realized during 2020 and 2021, we advise you to invite no more than 6 people and limit the discussion to 2 hours. These are the conditions under which we obtained the best results.

Advice: do not invite more than 6 participants to an online focus group



Duration of the focus group and level of attention

In online mode, a focus group does not have the same constraints as in face-to-face. We noticed that it was more challenging to keep the attention of participants in an online focus group.

We obtained good results by alternating individual presentations with shorter discussion periods. We found that 2 hours was ideal.

Advice: prepare a schedule for your online focus group and include 2 or 3 group exercises around a document (Excel file, mind map) that you will fill in together. Limit your online focus group to 2 hours maximum


The quality of the transmission

The quality of the transmission is an essential point that can ruin your focus group. It is therefore recommended to do some tests beforehand and to send clear instructions to the participants.

Despite all the precautions you can take, you are not immune to connection problems with the focus group participants. Our experience shows that problems will occur on average with 1 to 2 out of 10 participants.

Advice: prepare a pdf datasheet and send it to the participants before the focus group. This way, you will minimize the occurrence of problems.


The quality of the recording

All platforms (Zoom, Teams, …) now propose to record online meetings. This can, of course, be applied to online discussion groups.

However, it is vital to know in advance what you intend to do with the recordings. If you want to edit the recordings and present the results to the client, the quality must be perfect. In this case, traditional solutions will not give you satisfaction because the maximum resolution is the one allowed by the bandwidth. For the best quality recording, you can turn to Zencastr or Riverside.

Advice: if you want to reuse the recordings of your online focus group, later on, choose a videoconferencing solution that allows local recording (Zencastr, Riverside)



Recruitment biases

The sampling strategy is an essential aspect of realizing a focus group. When the focus group is realized using a remote location, an additional bias is added: technology.

Access to the online focus group requires a device connected to the Internet and equipped with a webcam. Certain socio-demographic groups are less represented among the owners of smartphones, tablets, or computers. In addition, there are still “white zones” in some regions that can be problematic when respondents are in them.

For example, we realized a project related to the digital divide amplified by the Covid crisis. For such a subject, online focus groups represent a methodological bias that completely prevents the research objectives from being achieved.

Advice: before choosing to realize a remote focus group, ask yourself about the biases that this could entail in terms of the representativeness of the participants.


Conclusion

Although the technique has now been democratized and the practice of videoconferencing is widespread in all sectors of the population, the various pitfalls of online focus groups should not be ignored.

In some cases, focus groups are not always the best option, especially at a distance. If your project is exploratory, it is better to opt for individual interviews. These are easier to organize and allow for more flexibility. If you are a beginner, practice with individual conversations first.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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