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The 10 Step Practical Guide to Online Focus Groups

In Brief

Online Focus Groups can be a mine of golden data for your business. It can also be intimidating to conduct, especially the first times. Indeed, Online Focus Groups involve multidisciplinary fields like planning, communication, managing a crew, collecting and storing the data, analyzing and delivering the final analysis etc.. This is The Complete Guide to Online Focus Groups.

On the other hand, when tackled the wrong way, it can be a big source of frustration and waste.

This is why it’s very important to have a step by step guide that avoids the unwanted headache.

This article provides a 10 steps practical guide to Online Focus Groups that are the following:

  1. Establish sharply the scope and objectives of the research
  2. Define the profile of your panel ie the respondents or participants
  3. Plan the event
  4. Hire the moderator
  5. Recruit your panel
  6. Define and explain clearly the discussion rules
  7. Collect the data
  8. Clean up and store the data
  9. Analyze and deliver the results
  10. Debrief

The 10 steps for performing an Online Focus Group from A to Z

Online Focus Groups can be tricky to conduct. The pitfall in running an Online Focus Group is to think that it’s enough to prepare the questions. It’s right that these two elements are crucial but they are far from being enough.

The real trick is to go through a step by step methodology. This avoids you to forget any small detail that can be decisive for your endeavor.

This step by step methodology encompasses the following 10 points:

Step1: Establish sharply the scope and objectives of the research

It’s important to answer the question: What will this focus group add exactly to my business once done ?

This goes inevitably by determining clearly the scope and objectives of your conducted study.

The scope stands for defining whether you are seeking for feedback, advice, information, sentiment collection, co-creation, brainstorming etc.. The scope encloses as well what part of your business you are aiming to cover, meaning which past, present or future product or service, is it a competitor product or service etc..

Once the scope is clear, comes next the determination of the objectives. The objectives derive from the pre-defined scope. The objectives convey in a more detailed way what you want exactly from this study.

The definition of the objectives is more quantitative and contains elements like: How much detail do you want to collect during the study ? How many ideas do you want to collect through brainstorming ? What kind of details do you want to gather during the co-creation session: Is it the creation of a product from scratch ? Is it the design and colors ? Is it the pricing etc..

Step2: Define the profile of your panel ie the respondents or participants

If there are two vital actors to a successful Online Focus Group, they should be the moderator and the respondents. The next steps will introduce the moderator. Let’s focus here on the respondents or the research panel.

It’s obvious that the profile of the chosen panel will directly impact the quality, quantity and type of the collected data. Consequently, the profile of the panel should be chosen in a perfect harmony and consistency with the previously defined scope and objectives of the conducted research.

The profile of the panel are among others: The age, gender, education, profession, geographic location, interests, marital status etc..

For example, a focus group conducted for fine tuning the digital marketing strategy of your business has to choose a panel that is consistent with your typical audience. 

Hence a luxury e-commerce business, targeting women between the age of 18 and 35 years old, that work in the office, belong to highly educated professionals with a trendy lifestyle and that don’t have children, should choose his panel accordingly.

Step3: Plan the event

Planning the event encompasses planning the starting and ending times, the budget, the tools, the crew etc..

Planning the starting and ending of the event is important since this is an information that you will need for all the upcoming steps. This should take into account the targeted deadline for the study as well as the availability of all the involved stakeholders.

The timing is also a crucial information to communicate to the panel when hiring them.

Planning the budget consists in finding the right trade-off between the expenses of the conducted research and its quality. Indeed, whether your crew or the type of the respondents or the chosen platform and or even the digital tools to conduct the research, do not have the same price.

Let’s take the example of the respondents. A typical respondent from the panel receives the equivalent of half a day with respect to the amount of his own salary for participating in the research.

Knowing that a typical Online Focus Group involves 12 participants, it’s obvious that these folks will not cost the same amount of money if they were CEOs or students.

The planning stage contains the tools to be used as well. For example which online platform will be used, how will you hire the panel, the digital tools for collecting, editing and storing the collected data. The software to be used for analyzing, visualizing and delivering the results etc..

Step4: Hire the moderator

The importance of a moderator for an Online Focus Group is like the importance of the chosen actor for a season of James Bond !

Even if the moderator will not have the latest super car from BMW nor the fanciest gadgets, he plays a vital role in orienting, animating and gathering the needed data.

The moderator should have the right technical skills for understanding what you are expecting exactly from this research and the right knowledge for using the digital tools and collecting the data efficiently.

The moderator should have as well all the needed soft skills for motivating, animating and engaging the panel in the right way.

On the other hand, you can avoid to hire a moderator if you think that you can do this job which is by the way very fun and exciting to do !

Step5: Recruit your panel

This is also where the magic of Online Focus Groups happens by comparison to classic Focus Groups. Indeed, thanks to the digital tools of Social Media Marketing (SMM) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), targeting sharply a given profile is no longer a big hurdle to overcome.

The specialized Online platforms for Online Focus Groups make this task so smooth, efficient and painless.

Step6: Define and explain clearly the discussion rules

Explaining the rules to your panel makes the event smoother and its deliverables more consistent.

The rules should be defined beforehand whether by the organizer himself or in collaboration with the moderator.

They should then be compiled in a document and provided to the participants by notifying them regarding its extreme importance.

Furthermore, these rules can be delivered through a text or slideshow document or a media content like a video or audio recording.

Whatever you choose as a means for conveying the rules, keep it short and straight to the point. Nobody likes to spend time reading rules. 

If it’s a text, make it shorter than 200 words or 1 page with spaced and digestible format. Make it structured, very clear and bullet points based.

If it’s a video, make it shorter than 5 minutes, typically 3 minutes.

The rules contain information such as: The role and importance of the moderator, the compensation system, how much time, or text length, each respondent has to answer to a question, the overall length of the session etc..

Step7: Collect the data

Now comes the awaited day ! It’s time to kick off the event and start collecting that precious data !

The stage of collecting the data during an Online Focus Group belongs to the list of advantages of conducting a Focus Group online instead of classically.

Indeed, since the focus group is digital, the collection of the data is straightforward. If the research is conducted via a specialized platform whether in a chat or video format, then the content is accessible immediately upon the closure of the event.

On the other hand, if not, then the organizer should define beforehand how to gather the history of the discussion once it’s finished.

Furthermore, if the event is an online video conference using tools like Zoom, Teams or Google Meet etc, then don’t forget to hit the recording button before starting. 

That made many moderators and organizers going crazy when they recall it during the call, or worse, after thanking the participants !

Step8: Clean up and store the data

Raw data coming from an Online Focus Group is like raw petroleum before it’s getting refined. In other words, it’s precious but useless !

Cleaning up the collected data means to throw away all the related useless fluff like the introductory information, transition sections, useless comments, repeated information etc.

Cleaning up the data consists in structuring it as well. Indeed, Online Focus Groups deliver qualitative information in a highly unstructured way. The more the moderator is experienced and skilled, the less the initial raw data will be messy.

But even in the best cases, there will be an inevitable restructuring of the initial collected raw data.

This step consists in rebuilding the final document in an organized way where each subject contains its corresponding information in the format of bullet points.

If the deliverable is a video then the video can be edited in a way to group and label the common sessions together. Applying the same procedure for the transcript, or the text format of the collected video, is also a very beneficial exercise.

Finally, don’t forget to store the collected data in both its raw and cleaned up formats.

It’s highly recommended to store that precious outcome in local hardware facilities like hard disks. It’s also highly recommended to store the data in a cloud based solution like Amazon AWS, Google GCP, MS Azure etc.

Step9: Analyze and deliver the results

Once the data is cleaned up and stored, analyzing it becomes more efficient and straightward.

Don’t forget that the collected data is mainly textual and qualitative. Hence there is no direct way for plotting nice charts and diagrams directly from the data like it would be the case with quantitative data coming from an Online Questionnaire for example.

Hence the data analyst should take some time in understanding the qualitative data, extract the main patterns and outcomes that it conveys and finally put these results in a digestible format.

A very successful format for delivering such results are infographics. There are a bunch of great free and paid infographic solutions available online like Canva, Prezi, Adobe InDesign etc..

On the other hand, there is an increasing amount of online solutions for making an automated analysis of text data using Artificial Intelligence technologies and more specifically Natural Language Processing (NLP).

These solutions are able to grab quantitative information out of qualitative textual data. Such inferences include sentiment analysis, summary of text and classification of themes.

Finally, the results can be delivered via a slideshow, infographics, text report, video or audio report depending on the objectives defined at the first step.

Let’s not forget that the final aim behind the conducted endeavor is to gather actionable insights for your business !

Step10: Debrief

The debrief consists in reviewing the outcomes of the conducted research and assessing them with respect to the initial objectives. Were these objectives met ? Did the conducted study respect the pre-defined scope of research ? Were the outcomes of the research relevant, beneficial and actionable in a satisfactory way ?

It’s important at this stage to quantify Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that can conclude objectively whether the conducted research was a success or not.

Very often, to not say always, a conducted research that aims at answering some questions ends up bringing elements of answers but awakes new questions as well. Consequently, you have to assess whether there is a need for additional research for moving forward or not.

A conducted research paves the way for more successful future research as well. Indeed a lot of experience and rules of good practice are learnt through each new research. These rules should be noted somewhere during the debrief stage because it will be invaluable when preparing the next Online Focus Group.

Finally, impact your business and have a lot of fun !

This 10 steps methodology leads, when applied conveniently, to deep insights collected from the panel. What is meant by deep insight is the ability to collect deep thoughts, feelings and reactions from the panel. These deep insights are a great feed for accurate and impactful strategic decisions for your business..

In addition, conducting Online Focus Groups is a lot of fun and a deeply enriching experience that can be even addictive for someones. Indeed it involves preparation, strategization, communication, investigation and has a real and big potential in changing your business, hence the world, in the right way ! So enjoy, impact and have a lot of fun !


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