How COVID-19 Transformed the Focus Group

Virtual vs In-Person Focus Groups

It is 5:30 pm on a Tuesday and Barbara is preparing to moderate a health care focus group at 6:00 pm.  She is checking in with clients, studying the discussion guide and reviewing the respondent grid like she would for any focus group.  The difference?  She is in her own kitchen and will be able to tuck her daughter in later.  This is a virtual group and the moderator, clients and respondents alike will be participating from the comfort of their homes.

In 2020, the spread of COVID-19, shelter in place orders and travel restrictions made in-person consumer research almost impossible.  Researchers were searching for alternate ways to get respondents’ feedback without face-to-face contact.  Virtual focus groups became the norm over in-person groups for qualitative research.

Virtual focus groups allow moderators and respondents to have a focus group discussion online.  There are a variety of online platforms which provide video conversations, recordings and scheduling features.  Some more advanced platforms offer the ability to allow unseen observers with back-room chat capabilities, observer-initiated spot recording for key points, interactive screening sharing and editing for both moderators and respondents.

A virtual focus group using platforms with all the bells and whistles seems like a no-brainer:  no travel, lower cost with the same results.  However, there are advantages and disadvantages to both virtual and in-person focus groups.

Advantages to Virtual Focus Groups

    • Virtual focus groups are not bound to specific geographical locations. They can include participants from different parts of a state, the country or even globally, making the group more representative of the desired sample.
    • With a virtual focus group, the costs are reduced. Travel, lodging and facility costs are eliminated.  Respondents’ incentives can be decreased because travel to a focus group facility is not required.
    • An online platform affords participants, moderators and clients the convenience of joining the focus group from anywhere.


Disadvantages to Virtual Focus Groups

    • Some respondents are not able to comply with the technology requirements of online platforms. Most platforms require advanced technology including web cameras, current operating systems and high-speed internet.  Additionally, technical issues during the group can cause disruptions and frustration, all effecting the quality of the results.
    • Conversations on online platforms are sometimes stilted and awkward. It is more difficult for moderators to read body language on virtual platforms, they only get facial cues.  The free flow of opinions and ideas is more natural in a face-to-face environment.
    • Virtual focus groups work better with smaller groups. Some platforms actually restrict participants to 4 or less.  Fewer respondents limit the discussion and reduce the desired sample size.



Advantages to In-Person Focus Groups

    • Respondents feel more comfortable engaging in conversation in person. Participants are more likely to interact with each other and “spin off” discussions may uncover valuable data for the researchers.
    • In-person groups capture the attention of participants, there are fewer distractions. Respondents seem more focused on the discussion and the materials shared.  Additionally, moderators are able to read participants’ body language and nonverbal cues and then probe to learn valuable insights.
    • Some observers prefer to be onsite to view the group in real time via two-way mirror or closed-circuit television.


Disadvantages to In-Person Focus Groups

    • In-person discussions require a focus group facility, travel for moderators and observers, recordings, refreshments, etc. All of these factors have fees associated with them which is a consideration for the cost of the research.
    • In-person groups require participants to travel to the facility thus they must live close to the site. Conducting consumer research in a small number of locations limits the access to respondents and reduces the likelihood of obtaining a representative sample of the target demographic.
    • It can be difficult to hold an in-person focus group if your target area is more rural. Focus group facilities are limited or nonexistent.  Disperse populations require participants to travel greater distances to get to a central location.  Travel and lodging for moderators and observers are also problematic.


Eastcoast Research has extensive experience conducting both virtual and in-person focus groups.  We handle all phases of the project from recruiting to logistics to analysis.  Our comprehensive suite of online platforms offers clients a wide variety of options for virtual groups.  In addition, our network of focus group facilities provides clients with the ability to host in-person focus groups for large and small groups in any market.  Please contact us for your qualitative research projects whether virtual or in-person.

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