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  • Writer's pictureC.E.K. & Partners

How do online focus groups work?

Focus groups are a qualitative market research technique to gather attitudes, beliefs and opinions from a targeted group of individuals. A moderator guides the discussion based on predetermined learning objectives and questions.

At a dizzying pace, the world adopted virtual tools – focus groups, online surveys, online bulletin boards – to support moving forward with capturing data and insights. Focus groups continue to be conducted, but remotely. This article will help you understand and plan for online focus groups. If you need it, here's a more comprehensive market research checklist.

What is an online focus group?

It's the exact same concept as an in-person focus group, but conducted remotely using popular online meeting technology like Zoom or WebEx. There’s also market research software designed specifically for online focus groups that can be used – albeit at a much higher cost.

What are the advantages of online focus groups?

While virtual focus groups might take a bit more planning to ensure they are engaging and effective, our clients find value in the insights, and there are other advantages over conducting them in person:

  • Eliminating the need to travel opens up who can participate in the online focus group. It is no longer necessary to be within driving distance of a facility.

  • Reducing costs associated with rental of a focus group facility. It’s no longer necessary to even have a facility in the market you want represented in the study.

Here's a handful of helpful tips for designing and running online focus groups:


As with any focus group, you’ll want to consider the following:

o Establish a clear learning objective for the study.

An online focus group can be designed to answer the same types of questions that an in-person focus group would. These might include:

  • What is the perception of our brand or product?

  • What would it take for influencers to recommend my product or service?

  • Which messaging resonates more with our target customer?

  • What is the customer’s path from research and consideration to purchase?

  • What factors influence the purchase of a product or service?

o Identify your ideal participant.

Just like conducting in-person focus groups, with online ones, you need to understand who your ideal participant is. Is it a small business owner with revenue of $5M+, a marketing director from a Fortune 1,000, or a consumer shopping for pet products? Will you be working from a customer list or recruiting from a national research panel based on the specs of your participants? What will they expect as an incentive in return for participation? $150 for 60 minutes?

Read more about why the participant screener is so important!

o Limit session time.

Given the online environment, we recommend groups run 60 to 90 minutes and never 2 hours.

o Reduce group size.

While we target seating 6-8 for in-person groups, we recommend online focus groups be limited to 4-6 participants. This supports higher engagement between participants and helps the moderator ensure the learning objectives are met.


When taking a digital-first approach to focus groups, we spend time designing our sessions to ensure they keep the attention of all participants.

o Have participants arrive early.

Plan to include time for participants to settle into the online group. We ask people to join 10 minutes before the session begins. This allows time to welcome people, identify tech challenges and allow them to speak with others in the session.

o Start with ice breakers.

Just as we would sitting in a room together, you’ll want to build in time for people to become comfortable with one another and the moderator. Start with introductions and ice breakers – along with the rules for how the online session will run.

o Prepare participants.

Without being in the room together, make sure your participants know what is expected of them – before the day of the session. Will they need a pen and stack of Post-it notes? Will they need to download software and test it prior to joining? Will stimuli be sent to them ahead of the session for them to interact with during the session?

o Use voting and polling features.

Some exercises are designed to be group discussions – others are intended for individual work. The virtual meeting technology enables participants with features supporting both. Participants can work individually and then answer questions in the chat function when prompted, complete surveys, or vote with polls.



o Decide on your online meeting platform.

Will you use a popular tool many are now familiar with, such as Zoom or WebEx, or opt for a proprietary market research software? Will you need to do a technology check with a new tool?

o Require video use by participants.

In order to closely simulate in-person interactions, we use the video feature available through everyday platforms like Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Go to Meeting or Google Meet.

o Use collaboration tools.

We like leveraging a range of features for collaboration. Screen sharing creates a work space for capturing ideas similar to how a white board would be used in person. There are also other more sophisticated collaboration tools that can be leveraged such as Miro.


Most of our clients want to watch the focus groups in real-time as we are conducting it. This means that the platform you choose definitely should incorporate video. Also, other considerations include:

o Interaction with moderator.

How will your client stakeholders be able to interact with the moderator without disrupting the groups? Of course, there’s a range of tools from using the 1:1 chat in the virtual meeting to setting up a Slack thread to traditional texting/iMessaging during the session.

o Technology support.

While a moderator is leading the group and fielding input from the client team, it’s important that someone is available to handle tech support. What happens when someone drops out of the meeting due to bandwidth issues? Who will readmit them?


Similar to in-person focus groups – you’ll continue to handle the usual housekeeping items digitally, except there’s no need for facility fees, catering or reimbursing parking! Online perks, for sure.

o Confidentiality.

Ensure participants sign confidentiality agreements prior to the session.

o Incentives.

Whether it’s cash, a gift card or something else, participants will be provided an incentive for their time, and it can be fulfilled through the mail, email or Venmo.

Ready to start planning for an online focus group?

Online focus groups, as well as other virtual techniques – online surveys and bulletin boards – are allowing us to capture the valuable and actionable insights our clients need and rely on to make more informed decisions.

We’re a woman-owned business, and we’re here to help—whether it is planning for a research study or just scheduling time for a virtual cup of coffee. Contact us today or check out our research services.

Our team’s collective experience spans working on over 1,000 brands from start-ups to non-profits to Fortune 500 companies! We’re passionate about delivering strategic insights that transform brands. Clients across a range of industries—fintech, technology, banks, payments, financial services, health care, manufacturing and purpose-driven—benefit from our team's ability to mine data and extract gems from market research to find insights that matter. We help companies by providing the sales enablement tools, marketing materials and programs to build awareness and drive demand.


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