Online Focus Groups

By Sarah Baughman, eXtension

Evaluation & Research Leader

 

Focus groups can be a great way to gather research or evaluation data, especially when it is beneficial to have participants interact and hear the opinions or views of others. Traditionally focus groups are conducted “face to face” with a moderator in a room with a small number of participants.  New technologies make it possible to conduct focus groups online.  Online focus groups typically take place in a virtual meeting space where the moderator and participants are all in different physical locations.

Online Focus Group
photo credit: Lars Plougmann via photopin cc

As part of the eXtension State and Local Value Enhancement project we conducted a number of online focus groups in the last year.  Our goal was to emulate a traditional in person focus group as much as possible.  We used the Adobe Connect System in conjunction with a conference phone; there are many other platforms available that could work.  Some systems are free if your institution does not subscribe to an online conferencing service.

Here are some benefits, tips and pitfalls we learned during our process:

Benefits:

  • Cost effective
  • Modeling of technology use (a key value of our organization)
  • Able to reach a broad range of participants across the country
  • Able to give participants a choice in times/dates
  • Recordings and transcripts are available immediately for analysis
  • Participants have the option of speaking or typing responses

Tips:

  • Use the technology to its fullest by incorporating “chat pods” and “polls” to keep the participants engaged
  • Follow the usual best practices for focus groups (see Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, Krueger & Casey, 2009)
  • Have a moderator, a note taker, and one extra person for additional support as needed
  • Preparation is key!  Practice with the entire team ahead of time.
  • Carefully consider the use of VOIP or phone line.   We found a phone line to be less problematic but it can increase costs.

Pitfalls:

  • Technology and bandwidth issues.  While the evaluation team may have been able to practice with the technology not all the participants can.
  • Moderating can be a bit more challenging when you can’t see body language.
  • Can be easier for participants to loose “focus” in web-based sessions

I would love to hear about your experiences conducting online focus groups.  What has worked well for you?  What have been some challenges?  What questions do you have about using this technique?  Where do you see opportunities for incorporating online focus groups in your evaluation practice?

 

 

This article, Online Focus Groups, was originally published Friday, April 5, 2013, on the Evaluation Community of Practice blog, a part of eXtension.   This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No-Derivs 3.0 Unported License.