Ultimate moderator’s guide: online focus groups.

There are typically two forms of real-time (live) online focus groups: the popular text chat online focus group and the video and audio online focus groups.

Chat or text based online focus groups are a great way to start realising the benefits of using online focus groups. they are easy to set up and are very satisfying for participants who feel they are more part of an experience than a process. Reports and transcripts from the group discussion are available immediately.

Webcam or video and audio based online focus groups are growing in popularity as internet speed and capacity increases. Video and audio groups require the participant to have access to a web camera and a set of earphones and a microphone. Not everyone is comfortable appearing on camera, but audio and chat focus groups provide a hybrid method for those topics which may require a little more personal sensitivity.

How to plan a real-time (Live) online focus group discussion.

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The success of your online focus group is determined by the time you spend preparing your research plan /discussion guide. Like most online research projects, putting together an online real-time group typically adheres to an 80/20 rule, with 80% of your time spent planning and the remaining 20% actually conducting the group.

The GroupQuality® built in Plan Manager provides you with all the help and tools you need to design an online discussion guide. A discussion guide includes topics you post to the group to both initiate and guide the groups discussion. For example, chat prompts are perfect open ended text based prompts you can add to the groups chat box. They help a moderator quickly select any number of predefined text sentences to post to the chat box. If you want to be more detailed you can include the popular discussion topics and a selection of survey questions, videos, images, websites links, and your own web pages created from within the plan manager.

You still need a clear online research objective!

As with traditional face-to-face online focus groups, to effectively answer your online market research questions you need to know:

  • What is happening that requires online research to be conducted?
  • Is this online research project going to be used in conjunction with traditional face to face methods? If so how will it add to the results?
  • What is it that you want to know and how will the answers be used?
  • What decisions will be made from the answers revealed in this online research?
  • Who is the information for and what do the stakeholders have invested in the answer?

Answer these simple questions and you are well on the way to pulling together a GroupQuality® online focus group research plan.

For a 60 or 90 minute real-time (live) online focus group it is important not to try and answer too many questions, or cover a large number of unrelated topics. Narrowing down the research plan or discussion guide to 3 or 5 key topics will ensure that you have enough time to generate quality insights. Each topic might include half a dozen questions and include different kinds of stimulus you need to show. If you have more than five topics to cover rate them in order of importance and pick the top five. If you still need to cover more topics we suggest you schedule additional online focus groups. With GroupQuality® software subscriptions you can run an unlimited number of online focus groups.

5 steps to a successful online focus group outcome

GroupQuality Online Focus Group Software

GroupQuality® provides you with a simple 5 step process for successfully conducting online focus groups:

1. Schedule groups

Schedule to run on a day and time which suits you and your participants. It is recommended that a real-time group be limited to 60 to 90 minutes. After this time you may find participants start to get fatigued or distracted and the quality of the discussion may start to deteriorate.

Attendance and participation is greatly improved if you spend the time ensuring that everyone has access to a computer they are familiar with. Ensure the computer they are going to use is in a quiet room where there are no distractions! Evening groups tend to work well for groups which focus on generating consumer insights, and late afternoon is typically convenient for business groups. You may find timing is also dependent on the demographics and geographic location of your participants.

Create Online focus groups

2. Create discussion plans

The research plan or discussion guide is the most important part of the online research planning process – don’t skip it! Get this right and you will have a template model you can reuse for future projects to effectively cut down your group preparation time. If you need help getting started then contact the GroupQuality® scripting team at support@groupquality.com.

To identify the visual stimuli you will need to present during your online focus group session, invest time scribbling down ideas and drawing out some rough outlines of the session timeline. When during the discussion would it be best to display images, video or post follow-up questions. This will help you determine what digital assets (images, videos, swf files etc.) you will need to upload to your media manager before adding them to media pages in your group plan.

Once you have created media pages using the comprehensive content management authoring tools, you can quickly add the finished page to your research plan timeline. Once in the timeline you can drag and drop them until you are satisfied with the display order. Note: once you start the online focus group you can activate each plan item in any order, or skip them if you find you are pushed for time.

GroupQuality online focus group discussion plan

3. Invite participants

For real-time online focus group research we recommend you keep your group between 6 and 8 participants. Less than 6 may not provide the level of participation needed to maximise the results and more than 8 may be a challenge for a single moderator to effectively manage. For example, an ideal size for a real-time online focus group is 8 participants, 1 moderator and 1 or 2 observers.

Inviting participants with a personalised message will be the first step in establishing trust between you and a participant. If it is deemed practical, we also recommend you make voice contact with the participants either by phone or Skype prior to sending out the invitations. Personal contact will provide you with an opportunity to introduce yourself and for participants to ask any questions about the proposed group topic or session. Note: by taking the time to make personal contact you will immediately improve group attendance and make participants feel a little more confident and comfortable when attending a real-time online focus group.

Focus Group Emails

It is also wise to contact one or two reserve participants just in case you have one participant drop out at the last minute. This wont happen very often if you follow the steps above, but it pays to be prepared!

4. Moderating or facilitating

Your real-time online focus group session is easy when using GroupQuality’s online moderator control panel. The control panel is located in the moderator’s view of the group workspace and makes running a real-time online focus group session as simple as point and click.

The control panel will help you manage the plan timeline, keep track of each participant, identify participant results, launch the online web-cam & interactive whiteboard and keep the discussion moving along.The moderator’s workspace control panel has been carefully designed to enable a single moderator or facilitator to effectively manage an entire online focus group without requiring assistance.

Moderator control anim2

5. Reports

Reports generated by GroupQuality® are immediately available once the group has finished. In fact, you can review the reports while the group is still in session. Reports can be viewed online or downloaded for detailed analysis. The reporting tools within the GroupQuality® will help you search and review the chat transcripts to find interesting points of discussion.

Everything that occurs in the group is captured and reported in real-time.The reporting tools for real-time online focus groups include a built-in chat transcript analysis tool. The text analyser will identify the top ten re-occurring keywords and phrases. They are displayed and filtered by phrase length, occurrence and a assigned a chat phrase weighting score. You can eliminate words and also jump to a phrase in the transcript by simply clicking on a listed text phrase.

The reporting section also includes a full timeline view of the group’s activity as it occurred, and a comprehensive usability reporting section for those who wish to conduct online remote usability testing.

GroupQuality online focus groups reporting

Preparing for your group

Group participants

Participants for your online real-time group can come from a number of different lists. Most organisations have a customer list or member database, this is a great place to start!

If you have a website you might also consider using the GroupQuality® online survey tool to create an online intercept survey to capture and screen potential participants from your own lists. You can also utilise our built in survey screening templates and order focus group participants from with the GroupQuality survey tool. Once qualified through your screening survey you can assign chosen participants to an online focus group project list using the GroupQuality® panel manager.

Check out our online resource centre and download free the online participant recruitment guide!

Screening for participants with online community discussion boards

For the best results consider participants who you think will contribute openly and constructively to an online real-time focus group session. To add to your projects online qualitative research methodology it is a good idea to use the GroupQuality® online community discussion board as a real-time focus group project precursor.


The online discussion board is easy to setup and can run over a number of days. You can invite 30 to 100 participants to an over-time discussion, usually 3 to 5 days, and post appropriate discussion topics to help narrow down a larger group of participants to those who would be the best qualified to take part in a real-time (live) session – but don’t discriminate! Sometimes people we think may be to opinionated can in fact be the most communicative in real-time online focus group discussions. While we may not always want to hear their criticisms, it can some times be more insightful than those participants who are simply willing to agree with the group consensus.

Things to consider when narrowing down participants:

  • Ability to contribute constructively and consistently.
  • Consideration and acknowledgement of other participants in the group.
  • Demographics such as age, income, education etc.
  • Online behaviour e.g. Internet usage and computer literacy.
  • Availability to participate at a time which suits you.
Participant preparation

GroupQuality® includes the tools to will help both qualify and prepare participants for your scheduled group. You can choose to have invited participants complete an entry survey form. On this form you can include an image and a description of the group they have been invited to participate in. You may also wish to invite participants to upload ‘home work’ for you to examine before the group is scheduled to begin. Information collected from the participants prior to the group will help you tailor the language of your group discussion plan and better engage with participants. If you do choose to include an entry survey form as part of the invitation process, participants must complete and submit this form before GroupQuality® sends them there unique passwords.

Survey Recruitment

To help with eliminating any technology compatibility issues on the participant‘s, moderator’s or observer’s chosen computer we have included an easy to use and automated website browser test link in the group invitation template. This is a website hyperlink we have placed in the invitation and reminder email which, when clicked, will take the individual to an automatic browser compatibility check. https://groupquality.com/browsertest/ If the browser is not correctly configured the results displayed will point to the information needed to fix the issue, and download the relevant software to participate in a real-time group.

For live (real-time) groups, participants, observers and moderators are required to login to the workspace using one of the following:

  • PC users: Internet Explorer 9+, Firefox, Google Chrome
  • Mac users: Firefox, Google Chrome

GroupQuality® requires Flash 11+ installed to use the Web-cam and Audio.

Please click on the following link to check the compatibility of your website browser and update as instructed. https://groupquality.com/browsertest/

Participant stimuli

Real-time online qualitative market research focus groups require good instructional content for participants to develop ideas, solve problems and make decisions. A GroupQuality® research plan needs to provide enough information to generate group discussion, form opinions and reveal complex issues.

Within GroupQuality®, there is a set of comprehensive authoring tools to facilitate creativity in research plans to draw out both qualitative and quantitative measurements. GroupQuality® has included a number of basic templates in you account from which to draw inspiration.

It is always recommended that you choose group stimuli which is engaging and clear. Be aware participants perceive information in the context which it is presented. Misrepresented or poorly constructed information can skew the results of your online focus groups. The online digital medium should be considered when transferring traditional paper-based content to the online environment.

Generally the reading attention span of participants for online material is shorter than it would be when viewed on paper. The reading habits for online content will typically follow an “F” shaped pattern on the screen – from left to right, top to bottom. Too much content on the screen will result in the moderator spending more time explaining the content rather than extracting the opinion or views of each group participant.

GroupQuality online chat focus group

Participant incentives

Often you will need to reward or provide incentives to participants for attending your group. This can be done any number of ways. By either providing a gift voucher redeemable with your company, or by providing cash incentives distributed through online payment portals such as PayPal. Make sure the value of the reward is commensurate of the type of group you are conducting and the level of involvement required from participants.

A word of caution. It is unwise to use the products or services from a the company commissioning or conducting the research to entice people to participate. It could be construed that this will favourably bias the results of the group towards a positive opinion about the company. A participant may speak favourably of a company knowing they will receive a gift of value from them. It is recommended that you ONLY communicate the value of the incentive to the participants if you are rewarding participants with company gifts in this way.

Online focus group incentives range from as little as $30 to as much as $200, but should be generally less than those offered for attending a traditional focus groups – after all they are not traveling to participate and can sit comfortably at home or work. After the completion of your group quickly follow through with the incentive and thank your participants either by voice contract (phone or Skype) or email. In another 6 months you may want the opportunity to run another group with any number of the same participants so it pays to leave them with a positive impression of the experience.

What is the role of the moderator?

A moderator’s primary role is to keep group discussion on subject, elicit thoughts, and to explore opinions, feelings and beliefs. It is important to remember that its not a moderator’s role to force an answer from the group, or talk down a participant’s contribution. It is advised to guide the group using the research plan and to explore new paths of group discussion with open ended chat prompts.

As a moderator you should initially focus on ensuring each participant contributes to the discussion topic, answers all questions and stays on track. Time invested in putting together a well structured GroupQuality® research plan, or discussion guide, will ensure the moderator stays on track and the group stays focused.

Top 7 moderator tips

A moderator may face a number of challenges when conducting a real-time online qualitative research group. Here are the top 7 suggestions on how to overcome them:

  1. If one participant tries to dominate the session, the moderator should invite each person to speak in turn. Use the Plan Manager section of your GroupQuality® account to build some predefined chat prompts to help diffuse or deflect the discussion.
  2. Avoid personal confrontation and allow the group to police itself (e.g. “do others in the group agree?”) . Make sure you have defined the group rules before the group discussion begins. This can be done by presenting a page to the group with a basic list of rules or guidelines to follow.
  3. Participants will have many different attitudes and prejudices. Don’t ignore these – work with them. Just say: “We seem to have a difference of opinion here. Let’s talk about it together. Why do we all think differently on this topic?” Then let the group discuss it. Use differences of opinion as a topic of discussion. As a GroupQuality® moderator you should always avoid taking sides!
  4. If the group is slow off the mark promote and foster discussion. Ask open-ended questions. Ones that cannot be answered with just a YES or a NO but rather begin with: How? What? Why?
  5. From the beginning, adopt a `listening’ rather than a `questioning’ approach. Start with general issues and use your moderator control panel to make sure you cover the issues you need to cover. Questions do not need to be followed in the order they are presented in the time-line. If the discussion naturally leads to a different topic follow this, but make sure everything is eventually covered.
  6. Take issues ‘off-line’. If things get heated during the session, it may be wise to ‘park’ the issue and address it later, either as a private chat session via Group Quality (one on one with the individual) or as part of a separate group discussion.
  7. Dealing with technical issues. Despite planning and practice your group members may still run into trouble. If a participant gets disconnected make sure they know they can log right back in and rejoin the group at anytime. Keep a phone number or email address of the participant nearby in case you need someone to follow-up to make sure the participant is able to continue.

7 tips for a successful online focus group.

  1. Be prepared and test your research plan prior to the scheduled group.
  2. Document any group rules and communicate them to members at the start as either an introductory page in the workspace or in the initial group chat. Ensure these rules are reinforced during the discussion.
  3. Ensure individuals engage with one another.
  4. Provide all participants the opportunity to contribute.
  5. Promote healthy discussion through open ended questions.
  6. Summarise key points of discussion, but do not lead.
  7. Ensure group sessions run on time and stay on track.

GroupQuality® online focus group software was built to include all the know-how to help you successfully complete your online focus group project – delivering detailed insights and immediate top-line feedback efficiently and cost effectively.

For the beginner to the seasoned online research professional, GroupQuality® empowers you with the confidence and know how to moderate live (real-time) online focus groups.

GroupQuality® is a cloud based customer feedback and insights software and service that helps you capture consumer insights, in less time, on smaller budgets and with fewer resources. If you need a fast and flexible tool to engage customers, employees and partners, to communicate, collaborate, ask questions and quickly capture the answers, then we are for you!

This article first appeared @ groupquality.com/blog

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