Considerations for and Lessons Learned from Online, Synchronous Focus Groups
Consider the following major factors when deciding whether to implement online focus groups in place of in-person groups:
- Discussion topic
- Target population characteristics, including respondent location
- Available technology
- Potential costs
Best practices to follow when implementing online focus groups include:
- Keeping the groups smaller than in-person groups
- Providing detailed instructions to participants
- Using visual displays and round-robin questions to encourage engagement and manage the discussion
New technologies continue to push the boundaries of collaboration, bringing together geographically dispersed people into a single, virtual space. Combined with budget pressures, the availability of high-speed Internet and online communication platforms encourage opportunities to use virtual focus groups. Virtual, or online, focus groups may be either asynchronous or synchronous (Mann and Stewart 2001). In asynchronous focus groups, participants access a site to answer moderator-posed questions or respond to other participants’ comments. Participants in synchronous focus groups interact with the moderator and each other “live.”
Despite conditions favoring their use, comparatively little literature exists on using online focus groups for social science research, particularly webinar-type synchronous focus groups. Mayer and colleagues (2006a; 2006b) conducted five such groups with caregivers and providers of pediatric patients and found that participants in the chat-based groups were able to share their experiences and express emotions by using emoticons available in the conferencing system. Participants’ comfort with the messaging technology varied, and some required assistance with technical problems such as logging on or using the software. Underhill and Olmsted (2003) compared transcripts from face-to-face focus groups and chat-based, online focus groups and found no significant differences in participation rates, the number of unique ideas generated, the total number of relevant comments, or participant satisfaction. However, more off-topic comments were generated in the online groups.
What literature exists on this topic originated nearly a decade ago, and technological innovations affecting this data collection method evolve rapidly. In this paper, we draw from our experiences on two recent studies to describe considerations for using online, synchronous focus groups as well as lessons learned from implementing them.
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