Diary of an Online Focus Group

Making online focus groups happen does not require magical talents. Skilled QRCs already have the tricks they need to conduct successful qualitative research studies online. Take a look inside the diary of one online focus group project and learn how you can apply what you already know.

Making online focus groups happen does not require magical talents. Skilled QRCs already have the tricks they need to conduct successful qualitative research studies online. Take a look inside the diary of one online focus group project and learn how you can apply what you already know.


A decade ago, it was a lonely world for an online qualitative researcher. Back in 1997, I worked for an enterprising market research firm in New Jersey, moderating focus groups in public AOL chat rooms. Those were the days… the loud hum of the office servers, my shiny new 386 PC with its microwave-size monitor taking up three-fourths of my desk, wires protruding from every conceivable location, the constant ringing of telephones. My, how things have changed.

Today, with less overhead and programming knowledge required, online qualitative research offers QRCs and their clients a very real solution in a challenging economy. The internet also affords the innovative QRC the chance to really shine, from organizing creative bulletin-board discussions to conducting personal IDIs with text and video via instant messenger programs.

The core skills required to be a good QRC are the same for online as they are for in-person research. Clear objectives, effective screening, an unbiased discussion guide and insightful analysis are the foundation of any good qualitative research study. With online studies, these valuable elements become the focus, while ancillary project expenses, like travel and transcription fees, get the heave-ho.

Whichever online data-collection method(s) you choose, most will provide fast access to a digital record of the interview, helping you get your analysis to the client faster. A few innovative research companies have developed hybrids of the methodologies listed here, offering even greater customization to meet your research needs. Besides InsideHeads, you can shop for online qualitative research services from 20/20 Research, Artafact, Focus Forums, itracks and QualVu, just to name a few.


Debunking the Myths of Online Moderating

You need to be able to "program" code.
Many qualitative research applications today have simple interfaces that do not require any programming knowledge.

You need to be a fast typist.
You do not need to don a cape and be a Super Typist to moderate online focus groups successfully. Some facilities even provide for a pre-loaded discussion guide, eliminating the need to type every question separately and making your followup probes more responsive.

No facial expressions is a problem.
People convey emotion with typed words every day via email, IMs, text messages, tweets, social networking posts, you name it. In an online focus group, participants are aware of their environment and frequently use emoticons and familiar abbreviations to clarify their opinion.


Putting Online to Use

Making it happen does not require magical talents. Skilled QRCs already have the tricks they need to conduct successful qualitative research studies online. Take a look inside the diary of one online focus group project and learn how you can apply what you already know.


Day 1


Project Awarded

Weeks earlier, InsideHeads provided a client a proposal to conduct a website evaluation among prospective graduate students. The client team was developing a new website and needed feedback on desired site layout and features to direct its design recommendations. The research proposal included handling the recruiting, moderating two online focus groups and providing the transcripts along with a written report.

For this study, we proposed text-based online focus groups, which would maximize the volume of data collected in just two groups. Since multiple participants respond simultaneously, nobody waits to speak, and the conversation proceeds briskly. Compared to in-person groups, textbased online focus groups can provide for twice the number of participants and yield exceptionally “meaty” transcripts (15,000+ words).

Although this study was clearly appropriate for online administration, other qualitative research objectives can be successfully achieved online. Sensitive or personal topics are especially well suited for online research because of the inherent freedom and anonymity the environment provides.


Emailed the InsideHeads research team and alerted it to new project & schedule.

Since our client had a presentation to his client in less than three weeks, both online focus groups were scheduled to occur two weeks later at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. EST, providing reasonable meeting times across the different U.S. time zones.


Confirmed the proposed recruiting resources.

An email address list of prospective students was available from the client, so the plan was for InsideHeads to prepare the online screening questionnaire, and the client would distribute the emails with the screener link.

Although in this situation, we had an available pool of students from which to recruit, many traditional screening and recruiting methods, like phone or direct mail, can also be used for online focus groups. As with in-person research, recruiting the right participants is critical to the success of the research study, so you will want to consider recruiting costs and timing carefully before submitting your proposal.

If you, or your client, do not have available access to a sample source from which to recruit, you can consider outside panel companies, opt-in email lists and customer databases, in addition to traditional recruiting methods. Check within your existing network of recruiters and focus facilities, as they may handle online recruiting or work with a partner who does. You may want to recruit from multiple sample sources for some projects.

Each provider has competencies in different markets, as well as different identity verification and reward methods. ESOMAR’s recently updated “26 Questions to Help Research Buyers of Online Samples” (at www.Esomar.org) is a great reference when selecting the proper recruiting resource for your study.

When selecting a recruiter for your online focus group projects, they’ll need to know the following in order to provide you an accurate quote:

  • Total number of groups
  • How many qualified participants you expect to have in each group
  • Duration of each group discussion
  • Participant requirements and group segmentations, if any
  • Project timing
  • Incentives (amount and who has distribution responsibility)
  • What you want the recruiter to handle (sample only, online screener, incentives, etc.)
  • Any special instructions


Confirmed virtual focus facility

For this study, we used the InsideHeads virtual focus facility. Know which facility resource you will use before submitting your proposal, since costs, timing and the level of your involvement will vary depending on the platform you choose.


Drafted written screening questionnaire; emailed client for review/approval.


Day 2


Received client approval on written screening questionnaire; began programming for online administration.

Although we used proprietary survey programming software to program the screener for this study, you can do it for little to no cost on your own, or you can hire a company to manage it for you. Often, the recruiter and/or facility provider you choose will also handle the online screener administration as part of their service.

Some great do-it-yourself (DIY) survey tools exist online for free, with low costs for added features (e.g., SurveyMonkey.com, Survey Gizmo.com, etc.). They are relatively simple to learn and enable you to gather screener data and manage recruiting on your own.

DIY survey tools are handy when you already have an email address list of people you need to screen further. A big advantage of setting up your own online screeners is that once you have a template, you need only modify it for future studies.

To actually send out invitations to an email address list of recruits to be screened, you can use the merge mail features of your existing email program, or consider a bulk emailer program like WorldMerge, eMerge, MailWorkz or King Mailer, to name just a few.

  • Be sure to name your screening questionnaire something unrelated to your client or the research topic (often, the “name” is visible in the resulting url link).
  • When inviting people to take your online screening questionnaire, be sure to include a response deadline, as well as clear incentive rules and a clear explanation of the time investment that will be required.
  • Remember to screen for “available internet access” at the scheduled group date/time, as well as other standard industry screening and past research participation.
  • If you are recruiting children to participate in a research study online, be sure to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). You can find more information at www.coppa.org.
  • To catch people who disqualify appropriately, consider adding a hidden programming question in your survey (not visible to the respondent) that will secretly tag those who do not qualify (that way, respondents who go back to a page and change their answers in an attempt to qualify are still tagged as disqualified).
  • Throughout your online recruiting, keep a keen eye on responses. Within two days of sending the email invitations to the screener, you should have at least half the groups filled. By the end of the third day, you should be confident that you can fill all the groups with enough qualified participants. Expect a significant drop-off in response after three days of sending the invitations to take the screener. If you have any concerns, act quickly to supplement recruiting efforts and ensure fulfillment.


Day 3


Screener posted online; emailed client the link for final review/approval.
Drafted discussion guide; emailed client the file for review/approval.

The purpose of this research was to gauge reactions among students to specific website features and content, as well as to review three competitive websites. Participants were questioned about their decision-making process and how information contained within a website could add value and enhance their school-selection process. Questions for competitive sites focused specifically on site navigation, layout, design, ease of use, preferred features and appropriateness of content.


This article was originally published in the Fall 2009 QRCA Views - view the full article in pdf format here.

This content was written by Jennifer Dale of InsideHeads. Visit their website at www.insideheads.com.

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