Evidence-Based Innovation Blog

Adapting to COVID-19: 5 Steps to Avoid Online Focus Group Disasters

Posted on Feb 3, 2021 8:51:54 AM

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Understanding prospective customer and student needs and what will best serve them is especially critical during this unprecedented time. How can institutions help them feel connected? Which concerns must be addressed for in-person delivery? What barriers exist to enrolling this year?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced corporations to pivot to digital channels and universities to virtual instruction, many organizations have shifted to virtual focus groups to capture critical information typically gathered through in-person focus groups.

However, online focus groups present unique challenges - have you ever had a virtual focus group go “off the rails” like this 'unity' themed focus group from ex-GOP pollster Frank Luntz? 

“The Zoom session was swiftly derailed by shouting, crosstalk, disputes over basic facts and even deeply personal attacks, such as one panelist mocking another for sharing his mother's death from COVID-19.” (view both short videos below)

What went wrong, and more specifically, what can we do to avoid it? The fact is online focus groups are significantly different from traditional in-person focus groups. Since respondents are not face-to-face, they are encouraged to flex what I call their “internet muscles.” You know, the person who acts so much braver and angrier from a sense of safety behind their computer screen. 


I recommend five key steps you can take to help maximize the chances your next online focus group will be successful.

  1. FEWER PARTICIPANTS: Check out the videos of Mr. Luntz’ focus group -- there are far too many participants. Limit the number of participants from the traditional 9-12 to 6-8 participants. This offers the moderator much more control of the interaction. It also allows more in-depth discussion with each participant limiting their cross-dialogue with each other. Crosstalk just adds confusion as two or three respondents begin talking over each other. Add to that any audio delays and you have a brewing mess on your hands as frustration builds within the group.

  2. KEEP THE SESSIONS SHORTER: In-person focus groups are normally two hours long. Keep online sessions to just over one hour, but no more than 90 minutes. Sitting alone, viewing a computer screen just feels so much longer than face-to-face for participants. Think of all those online meetings that you have endured these past months. Didn’t they just seem longer and more tedious than the usual in-person meetings? Respondents are also more easily bored, and boredom leads to less engagement which, of course, leads to less effective analysis.


  1. USE THE MUTE: Do not be afraid to ask everyone in the group to mute themselves as you ask for a response from each participant. After they have all responded, you can ask them to elaborate on their response especially if there are some differing reactions. And, if someone is being too loud or disrespectful (flexing their internet muscles) mute them yourself, and if necessary, remove them from the session. The moderator must maintain control; not only of the discussion topics, but of the group itself.
  2. HETEROGENOUS VS. HOMOGENOUS GROUPS: Conducting a heterogenous group is fine. I mean, it can be informative and enlightening when respondents share differing perceptions of product features or customer service. However, a moderator must be very careful when the subject matter borders on very sensitive subjects like religion, politics, culture, sexual orientation etc. Couple that with respondent views that are on extreme opposite sides you have the potential for a disaster as Mr. Luntz experienced with his group.

    It can be very unproductive when participants line up within their tribes to obstinately shout people down or engage personal attacks. Qualitative research will yield much more information hosting two different homogeneous groups on the same topic.  

    Alternatively, market researchers can pre-screen for levels of extreme views or “level of crazy.” To clarify ‘crazy’ -- while people can have different opinions, they cannot have different provable facts (e.g., Earth is round, gravity is real). If some participants cannot accept certain basic irrefutable facts to the session topic, then asking them to participate with others who do, will just corrupt meaningful discussion. More selective pre-screening during the session recruitment will yield better results – this is added benefit of utilizing professional market research firms. If screening is too difficult or not feasible, it is better to host separate homogeneous group discussions.

  3. BE CREATIVE & HAVE FUN: It is always ideal to ‘mix’ it up a bit -- combine the topics of discussion with video visuals or online polls.

    Participants can complete these short polls where the moderator can review individual responses and call on participants individually to share with the group why they answered a certain way. Of course, it is best to mute others so they cannot interrupt until the moderator calls on their elaboration.

    Moderators can share video with the group while gauging reaction to various stimuli. These strategies will help pass the time more quickly for the participants as it engages them more fully which, in turn, yields much more effective results. 

Higher education market research often involves a combination of both quantitative surveys (e.g., entry surveys, mid-program surveys, exit surveys) and qualitative interviews (focus groups, admissions funnel assessments, in-depth interviews, etc.) to discern how students are engaging programs designed for their success. While quantitative data provides a breadth of information, qualitative data can be complementary by providing greater depth of information. Audience definition and recruitment are critical to the success of any corporate or academic market research project.  


Steve Keppel, author for this article, is a Service Quality Consultant and experienced moderator at Percept Research. He welcomes your questions and comments.

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Topics: Qualitative Research, Focus Groups, Steve Keppel