The Elephants’ guide for hosting online focus groups

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes a firm grip on our lives, we are changing our everyday habits and behaviours beyond recognition. Because after all, life has to go on and we must adapt to keep our heads above water in these turbulent times. 

At Elephants Can’t Jump we are privileged enough to be able to work from home without hindering our performance as an agency. But this is also a brave new world for us, and it is teaching us new ways of working as we can no-longer fall back on our favoured ‘in real life’ methods.

One such example is consumer focus groups. Traditionally consisting of a moderator and a group of respondents sitting in a room discussing anything from tinned tuna to banking, with clients watching on, this type of arrangement is no longer possible with social distancing and stay at home rules. The solution? Take it online.

But this isn’t necessarily an easy transition. Online groups pose their own unique set of challenges, such as maintaining focus for the duration period, sharing stimulus, and ensuring everyone is clearly visible and audible. Unfortunately, there is little guidance on best practice for overcoming these issues at the moment. Therefore, after talking to our network of researchers and field recruiters, we decided to create our own based off our own experiences. 

Over the coming weeks we will be updating these and sharing new insights on this topic over social media, but to begin with, here are our top tips for setting up and moderating online consumer focus groups:

  1. Maintain focus with stimulus: Online groups are no different to face to face groups here. Stimulus plays a big role in keeping respondents engaged with their screens and focused for the session. We incorporate interactive stimulus where possible, such as grouping and ranking activities where consumers direct us to drag and drop elements on our shared screen.
  1. Practice makes perfect: Once you have created your discussion guide and stimulus, and have chosen which video conference platform to use, as a moderator it is always important to do a practice run. We will do this between two of us, taking it in turns to work out how best to share our screens and lay out the stimulus so that it runs smoothly. This is also an opportunity to scope out whether your set up is good enough for hosting the groups with adequate lighting and a strong internet connection. 
  1. Make it easy for the respondent: There are so many video conference platforms out there, each one different to use and set up. To save time at the beginning of the session, we make sure that all respondents have a clear set of instructions on how to get set up and top tips on how to ensure they are visible and audible in the session. This includes wearing headphones with a microphone if possible, making sure their face is well lit, and finding a WIFI hotspot with no background distractions. It is well worth including your field recruiter(s) when developing this guide as they will often think of issues that respondents might face during set-up that you may not consider.
  1. But still be ready for technical difficulties: Even with the clearest instructions in the world there can still be technical hiccups at the beginning of the group. Always make sure you are on the call 15 minutes early to help respondents set up as they dial in. 
  1. Make observers invisible: When you are moderating you want to be able to focus on the faces of the respondents without being distracted by any observing clients. We therefore always ask our clients to mute themselves and turn their camera off. If we need to communicate with them, we text or use the direct private message on the platform (careful not to click ‘send all’ though!)
  1. Finally, ask your community: Talking to other professionals within the industry and sharing tips and tricks is the best way to prepare and know what to expect. We are fortunate to have a great network of research freelancers who have been eager to discuss their experiences and learn new methods alongside us. To them we say a huge thanks!

If you would like to find out more about how we run focus groups online then please get in touch. Our next challenge will be hosting immersive client workshops online. Look out for our top tips on this as well!

The Herd