Tips for Conducting a Successful Focus Group on Zoom

At Q2 Insights, we always use state-of-the-art approaches to conducting qualitative and quantitative marketing research studies. Many of these methods have become more automated. Despite the increase in automation of many research methods, the traditional face-to-face focus group remains a mainstay in marketing research. Due to recent Covid-19 concerns, it has been necessary to adapt the traditional focus group methodology to a virtual focus group methodology using Zoom Video Communications (Zoom). Since the Zoom conferencing platform has suddenly become an important part of the fabric of business, schools, and our social lives, getting respondents and clients to move to virtual focus groups using Zoom is a relatively easy task.  Despite most people being familiar with Zoom, ensuring a successful virtual focus group takes planning and precise execution. This article provides tips on planning and executing a successful virtual focus group using the Zoom conferencing platform.


  1. Ask about experience with Zoom and internet access.

Although there is no reason to exclude participants with no prior Zoom experience, it is helpful to know which participants might need more training or less training on Zoom prior to the focus group. It is necessary that participants have an internet connection strong enough to support Zoom. Not all participants know about their internet strength from a technical standpoint, so asking if their internet supports streaming services (for example, Netflix or internet gaming) and video chat applications (for example, FaceTime or Skype) even when multiple people in the home are online, is important.

  1. Require participants to use a laptop or desktop computer for the focus group.

Having access to a laptop or desktop computer is especially important to participate in a virtual focus group. Just like in a traditional focus group, participants respond to the moderator and to other participants. The big difference is a participant’s body language is not observable to the moderator in a virtual focus group, and so the participants facial expressions become even more important to the research process.  Because of the importance of being able to see the participants face, a stable laptop or desktop computer is needed to ensure the camera is also stable. Attending a Zoom focus group via smartphone is not ideal because movement of the camera can be distracting to others and the phone itself is a distraction. Additionally, supplemental materials are often shared with the participants during a session. If a phone is used, the participant is unable to see the materials and in turn, respond to the moderator’s questions. Phones should always be turned off during a focus group.  The goal is to re-create the structure and expectations of a traditional focus group in a virtual space as much as possible.

  1. Require participants attend the focus group in a quiet area free from distraction. (No driving or riding in a vehicle as a passenger.)

Consider recruiting criteria that ensures participants contribute to the structure of the focus group. For example, ask questions about whether they have access to a private area that is relatively distraction-free. Explain in a statement how the virtual focus group needs to have the same feel as a face-to-face session, which is typically to be in a conference room with everyone giving complete and full attention to the focus group discussion. Have participants agree to the arrangements as a condition of participation. Most obviously, participants should not be allowed to participate if they are driving or being driven as it is dangerous. Again, the idea is to re-create a focused environment where all participants can be fully present. For these reasons, riding in a car and walking around should also be discouraged.


  1. Do not cut corners on staffing.

It takes several people to make a Zoom focus group run seamlessly. Ideally, there is enough staff devoted to a Zoom focus group project so each staff person has specific tasks and can also back-up or assist other staff members should technical difficulties occur. At Q2 Insights at least three staff members are involved in real time, in each session.

  1. Conduct Zoom trainings with participants prior to the focus group session.

One of the most important parts of ensuring a successful focus group session is making sure the participants can be seen and heard. Conducting a private 10-minute Zoom training session a few days before the focus group ensures this.  Any connectivity problems are addressed individually with the participant. The purpose of the training (even if people are familiar with Zoom) is to reiterate the rules of the group, make sure their internet connection is good and most importantly that they can be seen and heard when they talk. Going over where the video button is on the screen, and the mute button are the most important.  A session with each participant ensures time is not spent during the focus group dealing with technical issues. If there is a larger group, training on how to raise your hand or applauding might be needed. If you plan to use the polling feature or have participants respond to questions via chat, training on how to use those functions is particularly important to obtain research information. Also, having a short training session is a great way to ease any anxiety about the focus group and gives the participants an opportunity to ask questions as needed privately, not when other people are present.

  1. A research associate should take notes during the focus group session and serve as a backup moderator. This person can also be the single-point-of-contact for clients.

With Zoom, the session is easily recorded but having a note-taker is important for several reasons. As is the case with an in-person focus group, the note-taker is behind the scenes taking high level notes and forming insights. However, in the virtual environment the research associate also serves as a reliable back-up for the moderator should the moderator lose internet connection.

  1. Have a single-point-of-contact for clients.

In a traditional focus group, the note-taker is located behind a one-way mirror with the clients and would interrupt the session to bring the moderator additional questions the clients want asked of the participants. In a virtual focus group, Q2 Insights has found it useful to have client’s text their questions to the note-taker and have the note-taker send those text messages to the moderator. Having one person serve as a single-point-of-contact for clients to text fully written questions is helpful to streamline the process. The notetaker also serves as the single-point-of-contact.

  1. Have someone present materials and control the screen.

It is common for participants to be asked to respond to stimuli in focus groups. In traditional focus groups, the moderator usually presents materials and guides the discussion simultaneously. In the Zoom meeting environment, having a separate research associate present material and control the screen is beneficial. That staff person looks at the screen to make sure the stimuli are presented at the right times which allows the moderator to stay focused on the participants. Listening to participants and learning from them requires the moderator be attuned to not only verbal responses but facial expressions and tone among other subtle communication cues. One could argue that being restricted to a screen environment also restricts the number of communication cues available to the moderator, for example, body language is less visible as mentioned earlier. This is another reason to free up the moderator to stay focused on participants rather than doing tasks like presenting images and changing slides.

  1. Use an experienced moderator.

Having an experienced moderator for Zoom focus groups is strongly recommended. Participants come to the virtual focus group with varying degrees of video conferencing experience and comfort levels. Moderators must manage added elements of potential awkwardness, anxiety, and disruptions due to technical difficulties.


  1. Be open. Invite and share comments about the virtual focus group experience.

After introductions and depending on the target audience/participants, it is worthwhile to briefly acknowledge the awkwardness and anxiety that some of the participants might be feeling (including the moderator) about being live on the internet with strangers. This is a good time to normalize those feelings. Humor works well and so do phrases like “… we are all still getting use to this.” This is also a good time to troubleshoot some things that might go wrong. For example, explain that if a participant loses their connection, they can simply log back in to re-join the session and there is no need to worry about “messing up” the focus group. Also let the participants know if the moderator loses connection, a research associate will come on immediately to continue the discussion.

  1. Use the functions available on Zoom. Be creative.

In addition to capturing participant responses to concepts, images, and videos, Zoom allows for participants to interact with the interface through functions like applause, raising a hand, responding to polls, and chats. Adding different channels by which participants can communicate and interact keeps them engaged.

  1. Check-in and connect with participants. Do not fake it.

While the moderator, research associates, and clients are looking at the participants, the participants are only looking at the moderator. The moderator needs to be completely present with the participants not just for research purposes but because being completely present is what is being asked of the participants. It is important the moderator quickly recovers from distractions caused by technical difficulties, texts with the note taker, or any other distractions that come up. To make the focus group experience seamless to the participants, the moderator must stay focused on the task at hand. Moreover, a good moderator helps participants relax and quickly get back on track when discussions are derailed for various reasons. Because the moderator cannot see body language or gauge the vibes in a physical room, it is okay to ask participants directly what they are feeling. Ask what is going on with their bodies when presented with concepts or materials. Do they feel excited (heart rate picked up), anxious (fidgety), bored (slouching and tired), etc.?


  1. Time of day.

For B2B focus groups, daytime is best. For B2C focus groups, afternoons and evenings are best.

  1. Happy hour.

Sometimes focus groups are scheduled during “happy hour” time. At Q2 Insights, we have suspected some participants were slightly intoxicated in focus groups. Some people are naturally gregarious but when a participant is seen periodically drinking something and then exhibits rising levels of volume and disinhibitions over a 90-minute session, one can only suspect. This has been an infrequent occurrence, but it is worth mentioning because temptation to be intoxicated may be higher when participating in a focus group from home (no smell and easy to hide). Researchers need to make case-by-case decisions about whether to explicitly address alcohol and drugs in the recruiting process. Of course, as with traditional focus groups, in rare instances participants can and must be removed from the focus group.

  1. Record the session.

Do not forget to record the session. Make a note and stick it to the computer or have two people responsible for ensuring the session gets recorded. This is a simple step that, if overlooked, could be detrimental to reporting.

  1. Good audio and visual hardware.

Commit to a successful virtual focus group by having quality hardware with good audio and visual functionality.

  1. Conduct a practice session.

Conducting a seamless focus group that maximizes the time with participants is much different than being in a typical Zoom meeting with colleagues. If you are new to conducting focus groups on Zoom, consider practice sessions. A dry run can be invaluable to preventing mishaps from occurring live in session.




This entry was posted in Tools and Techniques and tagged on September 2, 2020 by Q2 Insights