How to Moderate Online Focus Groups?

If 2020 had a tagline, it would be “Can you hear me now?”. Such is the impact of Google Hangouts / Zoom during the pandemic, thanks to intense movement control order and our new social distancing culture. According to a survey by KPMG Malaysia, 69% are in favour of remote working post-pandemic. So, the online platform is here to stay.

The online qualitative focus group is not new, but the lockdown rapidly accelerated it. So far, no online focus group platform can replace physical meetings, but it’s the need of the hour to change along with time. Let’s recap and evaluate the strengths and shortcomings of the current online focus group. And what can we do to make the online focus group better?

Advantages of Online Focus Group

  1. Convenience – You don’t have to wear pants. You can attend the focus group from the comfort of your home, and you no longer have to travel to a physical venue. Sweet huh?
  2. Cost-Efficient – It is 10% to 20% cheaper than the traditional focus group. Moderator like me offers a slightly lower charge for moderation fees, no refreshment cost for participants, no venue cost, petrol and parking, printing materials etc. Unless, if you are using a dedicated online focus group platform as they can be quite costly.
  3. Social distance – Online group ensures no interaction between you and the participants, thus keeping you safe from Corona-chan.
  4. Geographically Diverse – You can recruit the participants almost anywhere, as long as they have a good internet connection.
  5. Openness – The participant would attend the group from the comfort of their home, encouraging them to be more open and comfortable.  
  6. Easier Recruitment – Due to its convenience, it would be easier to recruit more elusive participants like key opinion leaders, professionals, lecturers, politicians etc.
  7. Recording – Use the video/audio recording from the session to illustrate a point or spice up your presentation. It is also helpful for the transcriber as it would be easier to lip-read from the video footage.
  8. Better participation – In a typical focus group, sometimes it is not easy to manage different types of participants. Those who are shy might try to hide and keep themselves as far away as possible from the moderator. But in an online focus group, everyone is right in front of you.

Disadvantages of Online Focus Group

  1. High Dependency on Good Internet Connectivity – You need a good and stable internet connection. Not just you, but all the participants, your clients and your teammates too. Otherwise, you would spend much time and effort sorting out technical issues during the session.  
  2. Not for all – You would be unable to recruit rural/suburban participants most of the time if they have a poor internet connection—or older people, non-savvy, computer-illiterate respondents etc.
How to prepare for a zoom meeting
Why is he wearing pants?
  1. Distraction –The distraction is real. Do not underestimate the meows and your neighbours.
    • From our home (natural environment) – Your cat would suddenly decide to start its OnlyFans. Your kids would suddenly want your help with homework or discuss the finance revolution. Your neighbour suddenly decides it is the best time to decorate their spare bedroom. FML
    • From our reflection – How many of you have seen your colleagues/participants ix their teeth, hair, make-up, hijab etc.? Ourself included. It can be very distracting to look at your self-cam and see all the hand gestures, hair, and expressions. Zoom allows you to hide your self-cam, but Google Hangouts doesn’t.  
    • From others’ connection issue – There’s always one guy with the mic that sounds like he lives on Mount Everest. Or like they have a terrible hiccup. Hic.  
  2. Difficult to establish rapport – You can easily miss out on the interpersonal chemistry and synergy that develops in face-to-face communication in online group discussions. You are not able to make eye contact with the participants. And if you do, you will lose out on reading the body language. Eye contact and body language tell a lot about the participant’s feelings/sentiments. You can’t share biscuits or kuih, make physical interaction, read the room or even understand a joke. It takes so much effort to communicate.
  3. Shallow discussion – Piggybacking off the sentiment above, it isn’t easy to get deeply engraved in conversations with other participants. Online focus group creates rather a monologue and not a real dialogue. Moderator needs to try harder to foster discussion amongst participants.
  4. Constant Interruption – As we cannot read the room, we often cut one another; therefore, it is easy for the participant to feel frustrated if they have been interrupted.
  5. Speaker view – Sometimes, when your participants were talking, the screen didn’t change. If you have more than 4 participants, it can be quite distracting as you need to select the speaker manually. And sometimes it can be quite tricky to identify who is speaking.
  6. Security – Sure, we can ask the participants to sign a confidentiality agreement and data protection act. But if we are testing a confidential product concept, how do we make sure that the respondents would not snap a picture or screenshot their screen? This is an unresolved issue for me.
  7. Technical Limitations – Google Hangouts and Zoom is designed for video conferencing. They have a low-cost version of a whiteboard, but it sucks. However, we can use other tools to help make our moderation easier.
  8. Not genuine feedback – Respondent can easily use google during the session. In one of my online moderation, I saw a respondent googled information when asked about their perception of a particular brand. Sigh.
Distracting Cat
You are doing great!

General Tips and Trick to Moderate Online Focus Group Discussion

  1. Limit the participation: Ideally, you should have four people in an online focus group. Six is pushing it to the limit. Eight is too much, and at that point, some participants would probably get left out of the conversation. It will help you get in-depth understanding, ensure equal participation and consistent dynamic engagement.
  2. Short Session: Schedule a 1 – 1.5 hours session. Any longer than that tends to be counterproductive. A short session (what a tongue twister) helps maintain the group focus and concentration. Online group discussion is highly vulnerable to distraction, technical issues, and it is tiring because we have to spend our concentration power on listening and deciphering the noise, unnatural audio. Virtual conditions tend to slow down the discussion for even simple exercise like a warm-up. If you need their usage and attitude (U&A) information, consider to capture it using a digital diary.
  3. Compulsory Tech-Check before the session – Ensure participants login 30 minutes before the session and conduct a thorough technical check. If someone has technical issues, it will delay and disrupt the session. Have a dedicated colleague to check the following for your participants:
    • Their connection stability; make sure that you can hear and see each other. Have everyone check-in and introduce themselves. If the connection is not good, ask the participant to sit as close to their Wi-Fi router as humanly possible.
    • Ensure that they are in a quiet place, preferably at their house. Avoid taking any respondents who are driving, in shopping malls, parking lot, on top of a mountain etc.
    • Encourage your participant to use a laptop. Use the phone as a last resort, and if they do, ask them to position it horizontally.  
    • Ensure they are plugged in and fully charged.
    • Ensure that they are 20 – 30 centimetres away from the laptop.
    • Rename the participants and observers.
    • Also, ask your client/observer to log in 15 minutes earlier. It can be distracting for people to see people log in and off during the discussion.
    • Remember to give access to the moderator to share their screen.
  4. Dedicated Technical Help – Have a dedicated colleague to help with your tech check (or that same dude that performs tech-check before the group). During the session, mute someone that creates noise or distraction, unmute participant who doesn’t realise that they are on mute, follow-up on dropouts, admit client for observation etc.
  5. Look into the camera – If you look at your discussion guide, yourself or others, it may look like you are looking somewhere else. Pro-tip from Youtubers; try to look at the camera when you talk. But that means you lose reading out on the participant’s body language, but it actually would help the participant feels like we are connecting with them. What I would typically do is I would position the participants’ video directly below your camera, to approximate eye contact.
  6. Elevate your laptop – Set the laptop on books or some elevator. Keep it on the eye level so no one would be able to see your double chin.
  7. Good lighting – Can do wonders in making you feel better. I typically use a lamp that can reflect the light in a particular direction, like this champ. Make sure it’s brighter than your future.
  8. Have a plain background – Get a plain wall behind you, and make sure that field of view cone from your cam is tidy. Or consider a more professional background.  
  9. Reduce your presentations – I noticed that the more you present, the more disengaged your participants would be. They feel like they are attending a corporate sales meeting – it’s boring and formal. Ditch it.
  10. Prepare before sharing your screen – If you need to present something, make sure to have that window opened beforehand. And clean your desktop/tabs to ensure that any private/sensitive information is hidden; like your client name, concept name, unrelated websites, etc.
  11. Use presents selective window option – Don’t share your entire screen. Or if you do, enable your “Do Not Disturb” mode. Notifications can be so distracting.
  12. Encourage participation – Online meeting give a sense of anonymity. If someone else can answer it, why should I? Livestreaming on Twitch to 3 viewers is less frustrating. Make sure you call out each of your respondents name now and then.
  13. One source of communication with observers – Don’t use the default chat functions. Have a colleague to manage the client and communicate the additional questions from the observers to the moderator. And don’t add the moderator into your client’s WhatsApp/Telegram group either, it is highly distracting to get the irrelevant messages/internal gossips/ jokes/questions from various sources. Just don’t.
  14. Constant communication with the participant – If you need to check with your colleague or present a slide, make sure to communicate that. Delays or the silence might give the impression that you lost connection. Keep everyone on the same page.
  15. Technical Issue – If someone started to sound like they are breathing underwater, ask them to switch off their camera. Most of the time, it would help improve the audio quality.
  16. Have a break – Schedule a short 5 minutes break if your group is longer than 1 hour.  

Free Tools to Make Your Online Group Easier

  1. Microsoft PowerPoint – Create your slides, and the moderator would act as the facilitator, moving the blocks around, writing notes during the discussion. Suitable to capture simple ranking and brand grouping exercise. Make it visual, short and straightforward.
  2. Google Jamboard – If you need a whiteboard, this is the best tool that I have tried. You can use this tool for brainstorming or brand segmentation exercise. It is free and allows you to integrate with Google Classroom. You can assign it as an individual assignment to each of your participants and monitor their real-time progress.
  3. Google FormsIf you are testing an advertisement, a concept or a storyboard, use Google Forms to replace your SCQ (self-completion questionnaire). Use it to capture individual ranking or as a springboard for your discussion.
  4. Miro –Good for design workflow, sticky note, brand grouping exercise, mind-mapping activities, or using a projective technique like brand laddering, this is your go-to guy. The free plan offers you three boards, basic collab tools, but it is more than enough.
  5. Mural – Another whiteboard app that you can use. Similar function like Miro. But it has a lot of templates like Design Thinking framework. It comes with both free and paid options.
  6. KamiUseful for concept evaluation. Participants can highlight the likes and dislikes, areas that might trigger confusion or excites them. Another freemium app, but the free option is all we need.
  7. MentimeterCreate online polls, spontaneous association exercise or you can even plot your data with multiple parameters for quick ranking exercise. Has both free and paid options.   
  8. AhaslidesSomewhat similar to Mentimeter, with greater customisation. But you can only use it if you have less than 7 participants. If there are any observers, then your best option is to use Mentimeter.
  9. Wonder – Suitable for a workshop or more informal focus group, i.e., kids’ group. This video call platform allows you to form circles. Everybody can join, leave or start a circle – the simulation is similar like how you can move to a different table (or something like the room in discord but more “movement” involved).

Final Word

The online focus group is not perfect, but we need to find a way to make it more engaging and meaningful in our pursuit of consumer truth. It is not a one-size-fits-all endeavour, and with some efforts, it can be a dialogue, not a monologue.

What are your thoughts on this? Any other tools that you use for your online discussion/meetings? Let us know xx

No cats were harmed in the making of this post. Stay healthy and stay safe!

Fazrul is a qualitative moderator/researcher based in Malaysia. He advocates simplicity and publishes qualitative tutorials. When he is not sleeping, he is usually awake.

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