Running An Effective Online Focus Group

With the progress of digital technology and most of the population being used to remote calls for work and seeing friends and family after the pandemic, online focus groups are no longer just contingency plans – in fact they are the new norm.

In our experience in this new world, online focus groups hold many benefits. One of the most salient is that people tend to produce more honest, opinionated answers. It seems that from the comfort of their own homes; people feel less nervous or dominated by those physically around them and therefore more willing to express themselves. We also find that attendance levels improve greatly using an online group as there are fewer barriers to attendance.

Although the idea of running an online focus group can fill many with worry, with an untold number of potential technology issues, we’ll examine the key areas to consider in designing and running an effective online focus group.

  1. Prepare, prepare and prepare again:

Planning and preparation are especially important in any part of food and drink market research, especially running online focus groups. It is extremely important to know how the session will be experienced for those on the other end of their device. We always enlist other team members to join a ‘mock focus group’ call well in advance of the session. This allows us to see how any visual stimuli we share will look and allows us to sort out any potential audio and video issues.

Further to this, it is also important to run through all your video conference settings thoroughly before the group to check things such as visibility of names of participants, recording settings and permissions for co-hosts.

  1. Even the clearest instructions may still cause issues:

It is important to properly prepare and inform participants of what they need to do well in advance of the session. We always provide thorough instructions which we have tested step-by-step on different operating systems (Windows, Mac etc).

That all being said, you can write the most detailed instructions and some people will still have an issue you hadn’t foreseen. Therefore, we always hold a quick two-minute video call with each participant from our panel prior to their first group. This can be time consuming with 50+ participants but is definitely worthwhile as it saves a lot of time by minimising technical hiccups on the day. Using a software which allows participants to join a call even where they have not downloaded the software, as a ‘guest’ user, helps increase attendance and minimise technical delays.

One question we often get from participants is whether they are allowed to attend the session through their phone, and this is something to think about beforehand. Whilst easy and portable, using a phone in an online focus group can increase the risk of people getting distracted and seems to encourage them to walk around whilst in the session – not a great feature when you want everyone’s attention!

  1. It’s a team effort:

Having co-hosts alongside the moderator is a great tool when running an online focus group. At HRA, we use a private chat function between the moderator and the co-hosts. The nature of an online focus group makes it easier for people to speak over each other and for more outspoken participants to lead the group, therefore our trained co-hosts remain on the ball to look out for quieter participants who haven’t offered their opinion in a while. These MRS qualified team members prompt the moderator to encourage certain participants, warn them if they are running over time, and offer ideas for interesting new questions. This is a real benefit of online sessions over face-to-face groups where the moderator needs to engage fully with respondents and cannot get feedback so easily from other team members.

As always in any focus group, the quality of the moderator is key. With the potential for so many overlapping voices, it can be overwhelming for anyone not trained in this area. A good moderator will be able to keep people focused, make sure all respondents are heard, not let loud people dominate others, probe respondents where necessary and cover all areas of the discussion guide – all while keeping the client’s main research aims in mind. It is a difficult role!

  1. Make use of the recording function:

The recordings gathered from online focus groups can often be to a higher standard than those from face-to-face sessions as every person’s voice and face is recorded when they are speaking. As such they are often a particularly reliable way of referring back to the group, summarising research findings and pulling out key highlights. We find clients particularly value these highlight videos as they can quickly get the core messages from the group as if they were there, without having the sit in on each group at a set time.

We tend to double-up on our recordings by asking every team member involved to record the group; it saves the heartache when one recording doesn’t work, has recorded in an unsuitable view or is interrupted by unstable wi-fi.

We always ensure that we correctly comply with GDPR legislation and MRS guidelines by making participants aware at the recruitment stage of the project that they will be recorded and the purposes of this recording. As well as being necessary to comply with regulations, this also makes sure respondents are comfortable to speak their mind on camera.

  1. Be aware of timings:

We aim to make the questions and content we cover slightly shorter than we would with a face to face group. Whilst having people sitting in the comfort of their own homes makes people more comfortable and honest with their opinions, it can also allow for their attention to wander more easily. It is best to make them aware of timings at the start of the group to set the ground rules and make them mindful of expectations.

  1. Don’t rule out taste tests:

One benefit of a face-to-face focus group is that you are in charge of organising tangible samples of the product and can ensure these are tested in a reasonably controlled environment. With an online focus group, you can either send out samples, or where products are chilled and it is not possible to deliver them, you have to put faith in participants to organise this themselves. This may seem a daunting prospect, but provided you are using a widely available product, in our experience, people are amenable to going out and sourcing this themselves. Asking participants to send photos of the fixtures from which they got the product ensures that this has been done and also gives the opportunity to get their feedback on the particular store they visited.

  1. Use different tools to promote engagement:

We find that if we’re having running taste tests in particular, it can sometimes be a good idea to have respondents fill out a brief online survey before they enter the video conference. This helps participants to be fully engaged before entering the call, sets the tone and allows them to think about their own individual opinions before being influenced by others.

During the session, visual aids (such as NPD concepts or packaging designs) presented through a screen share can be very useful in facilitating conversations. Of course, having a mock-up to hand can also be helpful to allow participants to see the scale of the concepts.


Running an online focus group doesn’t have to be a collection of technical issues and jumbled voices. Online groups provide opinion-rich content and interesting findings you may not get with face-to-face research. At HRA Global, we are well-versed with running both online and in-person focus groups.

If you would like to speak to our food and drink market research team about running an effective online focus group, please contact us.

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