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A Marketer’s Best Practices for Conducting Virtual Focus Groups

Now more than ever, marketers need flexibility in how we conduct research. This includes moving focus groups, a traditionally in-person method, to an online space. With more people preferring, or requiring, an online experience, researchers will find their most common sources for information moving online. Researchers will also need to understand how this shift impacts customer sentiment, values, and motivations. Here are our recommendations to ensure a smooth transition that allows the researcher to gather valuable insights:

Project Planning & Recruitment

While online focus groups benefit from a national audience, these groups come with limitations. The format can exclude people who are not technically savvy which can make the open session vulnerable to technical difficulties. To quell these issues, we recommend putting in place the following protocols:

  • Allow for flexible quotas and devices to ease the recruiting process. This is especially important when working with limited timeline or a hard-to-reach audience. Allowing people to join via smart phone can help with audience diversity.
  • Over recruit groups by 25-50%. Aim for higher over recruitment if you predict that your audience is not technically savvy or might be prone to dropping out at the last minute.
  • Explore recruiting by both email and phone cold calling. This allows for diverse audiences and reduces recruitment bias by channel.
  • Build a timeline that includes ample time for recruiting, scheduling, and confirming participants. If you’re looking for a niche audience, ensure you schedule ample time to find enough individuals. Ensure any vendors are fully aware of the timeline and confirm respondents at least two days before the focus group session.
  • Reasonable incentives are a helpful tool to increase the response rates during the recruiting process. However, be sensitive to the perception of incentives when dealing with nonprofit organizations.

Preparation & Set-up 

Setting up a productive environment before the session can help everything run smoothly. Being prepared makes a world of difference to avoid common pain points.

  • Be prepared for the unexpected. Attendees will sometimes do crazy things – walk around their homes, be in their cars, have their cameras pointed in different directions; we’ve seen it all. Just go with the flow and don’t allow it to be a distraction. Address the behavior if it's too distracting and move on.
  • Make sure that all focus group sessions are recorded. This allows for further notetaking, relistening, and client engagement with the qualitative portion of the research.
  • Partner with a vendor to allow for live technical support before (and during) the session, a customized focus group platform, and recruiting expertise. This can help ensure that the people you recruit can successfully join the call and participate fully. Test the platform before your first session to avoid any hiccups.
  • Allow additional viewers to watch the focus group without interacting with the participants. Setting up a chat room allows others to suggest deep dives and ask additional questions without being a presence in the focus group. This ensures that everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Set up a single channel of communication between the chat room and the moderators. This allows moderators to choose when follow-ups are appropriate for the flow of the conversation without having too many interjections that can derail the focus group.

Conducting the Virtual Focus Group

During the session, you want to make sure that respondents feel comfortable sharing their opinions.  The session should not feel too formal and the group should be managed so that all participants feel involved and heard.

  • Start your session by reiterating the background for the focus group and establishing rapport between the moderator and respondents as well as among respondents.
  • Follow the same practices as in an in-person setting but maintain a heightened awareness for engagement from all participants. To do this, you can use follow-up probes, engage with those who may be quieter, and call on people who are more vocal less, and encourage interaction between participants.
  • Ensure that respondents understand how to mute and un-mute themselves to avoid distractions. If a meeting participant begins talking to someone in their household during the focus group, it can be distracting and discouraging to those sharing their thoughts.
  • Require usage of cameras whenever possible. This helps people stay engaged and allows the moderators and other participants to use visual cues when responding.
  • Hold debriefs immediately after the focus groups. This allows for adjustments to the discussion guide based on the flow of the conversation and provides an opportunity for everyone to share their insights on the groups. Everyone receives messages differently.

Common Pain Points

Uncertainty surrounding the confirmation of participants before the focus groups

Filling focus groups in a manner that set the team up for success while recruiting


Dropout rates and technical issues before and during the focus groups

The attentiveness of participants during the sessions


Availability of people during our requested timelines for the focus group

Instilling a sense of urgency in the vendor


DO: Keep it simple. Use the same methodologies that you would if you were to be holding the group in person but be mindful of the slight nuances required virtually

DON’T: Adopt brand new technology that has not been tested prior to running a virtual group. There are many applications that can help your focus group run smoothly but do not use them without practice and testing


Want to see our work in action? We just released our inaugural Customer Experience Sentiment Report where we surveyed consumers on their expectations and if marketers are keeping up. Download your copy here.