The Show Must Go On: The Move to Online Focus Groups

Amy - 11 th March 2020

As more and more travel restrictions are put in place to tackle the spread of Coronavirus, we are likely to find ourselves leaning more on online methods of research, for both international and UK projects.  We currently have several projects where we planned to conduct focus groups abroad (including several in Milan) and have replaced these physical groups with online groups

Continuously improving technology means that online focus groups can now closely reflect the environment of a physical group, however there are few things to bear in mind and some simple tips on how to get the best insights out of online groups.

What are online focus groups?

Broadly there are two types of online focus group methodologies.  Video/Audio groups, where participants connect via voice and video simultaneously in a moderated discussion, and text based groups where participants text chat simultaneously with a moderator guiding the discussion.


video pictext based chat

Video/audio Focus Groups                                                    Text-chat Focus Groups

In most cases video/audio focus groups are the preferred method as it still allows for non-verbal communication methods, such as facial expression, body language and tone of voice –providing a closer simulation of an in-person focus group.

Why use online focus groups?

In the wake of Coronavirus travel restrictions, the key obvious benefit is the negation of the need for both respondents and moderators to travel to conduct the research. Even without current strict travel restrictions we may start to see a reluctance from consumers to participate in physical in-person focus groups – online focus groups can tackle this issue head on.

Alongside this, there are numerous other benefits of conducting focus groups online for both clients and researchers.

Geographically spread recruitment

Conducting focus groups online can alleviate the limitations of geography. Instead of choosing to conduct research in one or two locations, you can invite respondents from all over the country, meaning a wider spread of locations.

Recruitment is easier

Without geographical restrictions you are essentially opening up recruitment to a much wider pool of people.  This means it’s often easier to find respondents who fit your recruit criteria, which is particularly useful for hard-to-recruit projects.

Faster Turnaround of Projects

Recruitment of participants is often sped up online as it’s often done by email rather than by phone or in person. The usual 10 working day period it takes to recruit respondents can be made much shorter, therefore speeding up the overall project timeline.

Reduced Costs

Online focus groups can reduce overall project costs. The cost of the platform is often negated by the savings made on travel and costly viewing facilities. Respondent incentives are also often lower, given the increase convivence of conducting the research in their own home.

Respondent anonymity can bring greater honesty

When respondents are in their own home, behind a screen, they often feel a greater sense of anonymity and there feel more comfortable to speak their mind freely and be open and honest with their views.

Are there any downsides and how can I avoid them?

Like every methodology there are a few watch outs but below are several handy tips on how to overcome these obstacles

Technical issues

Video calls require the user to have a good internet speed and poor internet connections can lead to technical problems which may disrupt the group. Ensuring there is a backup telephone number for the respondent to call in and still participate in the group by audio can help.  It is also a good idea to test the system with respondents the day before, and to invite respondents to the group 15 minutes early to deal with any technical issues before the groups start. If you are using a dedicated online focus group platform, they will often have technical advisers present during the groups to assist anyone who is having difficulties.

Group dynamics

Rapport between respondents themselves and with the moderator can be harder to form online than in person. Spending more time warming respondents up and familiarising them with the research process can help.

Overlapping conversations

Without more obvious non-verbal signals respondents are more likely to talk over each other. Reducing the number of respondents to 4-6 is a great way of reducing the occurrence of this. In cases where you are finding it more difficult, to control the group you can introduce a method of raising hands if people want to speak which helps signal to the moderator who wants to talk. Only use this as a last resort though as it can create a stilted discussion!

Confusion in conversation topics

In physical focus groups the moderator can use subtle ways to indicate they wish to move on to the next conversation topic. Online this is more difficult, and it helps to be more direct. At the start of the group it’s helpful to give respondents an outline of the topics that will be discussed and to clearly signal when moving on to the next topic


Respondents are in their own home, and may get distracted during the group - it’s hard to tell if they are giving their full attention to the group or browsing on the internet instead! As in physical focus groups,  keep respondents engaged with activities.

Online focus group platforms often have an array of tools and techniques, such as whiteboards, polls and drag and drop activities that can help keep respondents engaged and interested.  It’s also easy to upload images, videos and stimulus!




What about text-chat focus groups?

Video/Audio focus groups are usually preferable. The key issue with text-based groups is that non-verbal feedback is not just difficult but impossible to analyse, however there are some cases where text-based groups might be beneficial.

Greater Anonymity

Without video or audio, respondents have a greater amount of anonymity and are likely to feel like they can be more open and honest. This is particularly helpful when discussing more sensitive topics where people may feel uncomfortable talking about personal experiences or sharing their opinions and views.


Some argue that for younger generations text based comms is the norm and they find it quite natural to express themselves through text. Text can also show emotions through emojis, capital letters and slang

Time to reflect

Communicating by text allows people more time to reflect on their answers and more thought is often put in to what they say, rather than saying the first thing they think of. Whilst this can prevent spontaneous top of mind reactions, it can help gain more considered feedback.

What does this mean going forward?

Despite travel restrictions, there are still ways of conducting good quality focus groups that produce insightful customer and market insights. Physical focus groups will always have their place, but improved technology is making it much easier to conduct research remotely with added benefits to the client and customer.

Amy is our Head of Research, with a fascination in understanding human behaviour. Coming from a background in consumer and social research, Amy loves to immerse herself into the world of the consumer, using a variety of research methodologies, to provide clients with rich strategic insights. 
Find out more about Amy