What we’ve Learned from Doing Focus Groups During a Pandemic

By Curtis Brown

Survey work didn’t change much during the COVID-19 pandemic – in fact, it may have become even easier as respondents were more than happy to quit doomscrolling on social media for a moment and share their perspectives on the calamity raging around them. But what did change – for better and for worse – was qualitative research work, particularly the ability to gather together around a focus group table with our neighbours to talk through issues.

Like everyone else in the business world, we pivoted quickly to platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams in the early days of the pandemic (we learned quickly that Zoom is better). Based on our experience – which includes successfully conducting about 60 virtual focus groups, 15 public consultation sessions and 100 in-depth interviews in the past year-and-a-half – we have developed a deeper sense of what works and what doesn’t in these virtual environments.

To our mind, there are three advantages to permanently shifting focus groups online, as well as two big downsides:

Cost and Logistics. For larger projects involving travel to multiple locations, there is a massive saving on transportation and accommodations – not to mention getting back the many hours of lost time spent in airplanes, security lines and taxis. With apologies to the moderators who miss wandering the country, ronin-like, on a quest to build up their airline and hotel loyalty points, the amount of time, money and carbon emissions saved is an advantage that is practically impossible for both end clients and research agencies to ignore. Plus, being able to turn off your laptop, walk down the hall and climb into your own bed after facilitating or watching four hours of focus groups beats a night in an unfamiliar hotel any day.

Online groups are easier for participants. After nearly 18 months of lockdowns and social distancing, even the least tech-savvy among us know how to Zoom. Many of the people we contact are more eager to participate in an online discussion from the comfort of their home – or wherever they happen to be – rather than driving to a downtown focus group facility or hotel banquet room, finding parking, sitting in a waiting room eating sandwiches and making awkward small talk with strangers, etc. Connecting participants efficiently in an environment where they are most comfortable works better, especially when a skilled moderator is at the helm and can get participants to open up and share their thoughts via the “Brady Bunch” screen.

Online sessions bring people together from different areas. While things began shifting in this direction prior to the pandemic, online sessions allow us to cast a wider net to bring participants together. For example, if you are conducting focus groups with people in rural Western Canada, you can invite participants from an array of small cities, towns and villages scattered over hundreds of kilometres, whereas the in-person approach requires you to pick one community in the region and facilitate sessions there. We’ve also found that online sessions are more accessible for participants facing barriers to taking part in in-person focus group sessions – busy working moms, people with mobility issues and younger adults, for instance. This opens up opportunities for a wider range of people to participate in focus groups, which ultimately makes the research stronger.

While those are the advantages of the online route, there are two key drawbacks that make us really miss in-person sessions:

Online discussions require more structure, which diminishes their richness. This is particularly true of complex, nuanced ideas that ought to involve more back-and-forth brainstorming between participants. Simply put, it’s hard for Zoom to replace the organic, messy group discussion – where participants bounce ideas off one another rapid fire while sometimes talking over one another – that brings a great focus group to life and propels the discussion forward.

  • Since participants can’t read one another’s body language as easily on Zoom, we do our best to avoid multiple annoying moments of disruptive crosstalk by directing questions to individual participants rather than opening up the floor to anyone to speak. While this helps shut the overeager participants down to some degree and ensures quieter participants are equally engaged, it also means we lose out on unexpected and interesting feedback that can emerge from a more free-wheeling conversation.

Creative testing works better the old-fashioned way, in person. We’ve learned it’s much easier to test images, messaging and ad concepts in-person where participants can look at, touch and write on printed and visual stimuli, such as storyboards and written messages. While creative testing techniques can be adapted to some degree to an online environment, participants’ ability to engage with this material and provide feedback on it is not as nuanced or as rich.

As we enter a world where we learn to live with COVID-19 and everything that comes with it, we will recommend either an in-person or virtual approach based on what will give our clients the best insights and clearest path to action. While this may lead to newer, more cutting-edge approaches to gathering this type of data, the underlying principles of sound qualitative research will always remain the same.

About Curtis Brown:

Curtis Brown is a partner in Probe Research, a public opinion-focused research company located in Winnipeg, and a member of CRIC’s Public Opinion Research Thought Leadership Council. During his 13-year career, he has moderated more than 300 focus groups on behalf of a wide array of public, private and not-for-profit sector organizations throughout North America, with a particular focus on federal, provincial and municipal government clients.