Conducting Online Focus Groups in 7 Steps (+ How To Recruit)

woman talking on zoom meeting - online focus groups 2022 [ultimate guide]

With all of the talk about remote market research methodologies, one would think in-person focus groups are dead.

A more accurate statement would be that focus groups are evolving

As remote focus groups, virtual focus groups, video focus groups, and online focus groups have grown steadily over the past 10 years, COVID-19 really pushed this methodology into overdrive.

It is no surprise to us that this online methodology has taken the market research industry by storm in recent years and will continue to progress in 2024. Especially with what online focus groups can offer.

Ready to conduct an online focus group? Contact our team via our website or send us an email to get started.

What Are Online Focus Groups?

Online focus groups are exactly how they sound. They are focus groups and they are completed online. Easy to understand, right? 

Instead of recruiting groups of participants to hold in-person discussions around a table with a focus group moderator, participants are recruited into an online forum such as a Zoom video conference room (or equivalent software). 

Similar to traditional, in-person focus groups, participants are able to share their feedback, thoughts, and answers to questions.

Key similarities to traditional focus groups include:

  • Participants also react to others’ answers to create a qualitative dialogue within the forum.
  • Participants are still screened beforehand and qualified to participate in this form of qualitative research.
  • Many of the same process components are identical outside of where and how the focus group is hosted.

Watch this video for more of a brief synopsis. 

What Does an Online Focus Group Do?

As we touched on a bit in the previous sections, online focus groups gather qualitative data from groups of participants. 

The key difference is that instead of being held in a facility, the groups are held remotely. 

With qualitative research, you're always going to get detailed feedback. But this is especially true for focus groups. With focus groups, open conversation is fostered. 

As a result, participants will begin to feel comfortable sharing smaller details within the conversation. This benefits the client, as they will have these insights to use. 

When searching for a market research firm to conduct your online focus group (the right way), keep an eye out for the following. 

They Allow Mobile Devices

It's entirely possible for participants to join on their phone or tablet. 

In some cases, participants may not have access to anything other than their mobile devices. Additionally, they may feel more comfortable participating in one of these devices. 

To block this group from participating in an online focus group is a big no-no, as you'll limit the data that comes in. 

They Promote Private Spaces

It's essential that virtual focus group participants are in a quiet space. 

When conducting this type of research remotely, it's easier for participants to become distracted easily depending on their location. 

An experienced market research firm will know this, and ensure that participants are able to go to a private space for the focus group. 

The best locations for participants to be in for online focus groups include: 

  • Bedroom
  • Home office
  • Walk-in closets

The less distractions, the better! 

They Can Personalize the Conversation 

Moderators who are well-trained in the art of focus groups will be able to successfully engage the group from an online setting. 

This means they know how to be active and engaging during the conversation. 

For instance, one participant may bring up an interesting point. A good moderator will ask them to further explain (this is a perfect example of why focus groups are great for gathering small details). 

They Keep the Group Small

An online focus group isn't supposed to be large. 

For in-person focus groups, we advise not having more than 12 participants. But with online focus groups, it's ideal to have no more than six participants. 

It's important to have a smaller group so each participant can share their true opinion without it being drowned out by too many voices. 

Types Of Focus Groups Online

In our experience, we’ve worked with hundreds of focus groups online and while there are many different types, there are two main ones that are most common.

Synchronous and asynchronous are the most common types of online focus groups.


Synchronous is mostly what everyone most likely thinks of when considering a focus group. It mimics being in-person, meaning everyone is active at the same time discussing questions and their answers.

It also allows for discussions between members and even body language can be a factor at play when considering the participants' answers.


Asynchronous is like a recorded video where participants can join whenever, not necessarily at the same time.

It allows for convenience of the participants and some flexibility but lacks the group community aspect of other focus group types. Although, it can be valuable in some scenarios, like when talking about sensitive topics for example.

Either type of focus group can work for your company, if you’re unsure which is best - reach out to us. We’re focus group pros and we can help you decide what will help your company reach their research goals faster.

Benefits of Remote Focus Groups

Online focus groups are a growing trend in the market research industry because of the ability to deliver cost-effective qualitative insights in a shorter amount of time.

The main advantages of conducting remote focus groups mostly revolve around cost savings, time savings, and broader geographies for recruitment. 

Each of these is discussed in more detail below.

Laptop screen over woman shoulder view during group online communication

Benefit #1: Cost Savings 💰

The first is cost savings.

Without the need to book a focus group facility or send a large team cross-country to moderate and analyze a session, online focus groups can significantly reduce the overhead of a qualitative project. 

There is no project management time around booking or securing several aspects of the in-person groups.

Save money on travel.

No travel costs for the moderator. No travel costs for the analysts and note-takers. No travel costs for you as the client to watch the groups live. 

The travel portion of qualitative research can prove fun and eventful, but it is also a bulk of the cost involved with qualitative market research.

With online focus groups, all efforts are centered around logging into an online platform or website. 

No passport necessary!

Save money on stipends.

Without requiring participants to travel to a facility, find directions, park, or take off work, you can lower the reward payout.

For instance, a $200 reward becomes $100, or even a $150 reward can become $75. 

Asking someone to log in from the comfort of their own home is much easier than asking participants to face rush hour traffic to get to a facility by 5:30 p.m.

Save money on facility costs.

Since the whole conversation between moderators, viewers, and participants is done online, there is no need for the overhead cost of a facility. 

It's sometimes hard to replicate person-to-person and face-to-face contact, but if this is not critical for your project or your key customers are scattered throughout the country, online focus groups can save you on a tight budget here too.

Benefit #2: Save on Time ⏰

Another benefit to conducting video focus groups is time savings.

Without any logistics or travel time, the moderator and team can be more efficient by spending time reacting to answers and designing strong questions. 

This is time better spent recruiting strong individuals, prepping a good moderator's guide, and actively conducting research by moderating and viewing the focus groups live online.

The whole process is way more efficient.

Benefit #3: No Recruitment Limitations 🌎

Recruiting for online focus groups can be much easier (and therefore cheaper) than in-person focus groups. 

For instance, if you are looking for a nationally representative sample, you no longer have to select 2 or 3 cities across the United States to host the focus groups

Your online focus group sample can be made up of participants from Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, Syracuse, and more.

Geography doesn't matter as it would with a facility where you'd need to find participants close by to show up.

This can be especially beneficial for hard-to-reach participants or niche audiences. 

Additionally, Drive Research finds these online focus groups work well for hard-to-reach, busy B2B professionals or C-level decision-makers who may not be able to put aside 2 to 3 hours to travel to a focus group and talk face-to-face.

Recommended Reading: Best Practices When Recruiting for Online Focus Groups

global communication

Benefit #4: Greater Visibility for All 👀

Although you could cram 10 to 12 viewers into a client viewing room of a focus group facility, the room gets tight. The same can be said when trying to fit 30 participants in a room fit for 12. 

You won't have these issues with online focus groups.

Most systems also allow unlimited or a large number of seats for client viewers.

You can have 30-40 viewers sign on and watch the group lives without being elbow-to-elbow.

How to Find Participants for Remote Focus Groups

As mentioned previously in this ultimate guide, geographical barriers are eliminated when finding participants for remote focus groups.

This means opinions can be heard from participants around the country or even the world. 

With in-person focus groups, location can be an issue if the audience you’re trying to target has a low incidence rate within that specific market. 

Remote or video focus groups, on the other hand, allow qualitative recruitment teams to target audiences on a broader level, meaning quotas are a lot more likely to be met. 

Many online focus group companies recommend over-recruiting a bit.

So if you'd like 4 people to complete all phases of the focus group, sometimes 6-8 need to be recruited to account for drop-out.

This is much like a normal focus group. In those situations, if your company wants to sit 10 participants, firms will recruit 12+.

In this section, we will share how Drive Research finds participants for online focus groups to ensure a mix of qualified, articulate participants and a good show rate. 

Recommended Reading: Ultimate Guide to Recruiting Participants for Market Research 

recruiting for online focus group process by drive research

Step #1: Start with an online screener 🔎

Just like with a traditional, in-person focus group, Drive Research starts with an online recruitment screener to form a pool of pre-screened and potentially qualified participants. 

The screener is then sent to the target audience members through an email panel or advertised via social media.

Either recruitment method allows you to target participants who closely align with any screening criteria you may have - such as gender, age, household income, purchasing history, etc.

Although the recruitment screener is sent to a specific audience, this initial survey is built to ask for essential qualifying information.

This helps give your team a list of prequalified participants to follow up with, rather than just starting blind with a random sample of people. 

Step #2: Follow up with a phone call ☎️

Once a list of pre-screened participants has been formed, our qualitative recruitment team adds another layer of qualification through a follow-up phone call. 

During follow-up phone calls for the remote focus group, you should: 

  • Confirm the major qualifying criteria. It is easier to tell if someone is lying over the phone as opposed to an online survey.
  • Ask any questions not asked in the online screener.
  • Ask open-ended questions to confirm the participant is a good fit for the online focus group.
  • Provide clear instructions for the online focus group.

Once a participant is qualified and registered, it’s important for the recruiter to provide a clear explanation of exactly how the online focus group will work. 

Recommended Reading: Importance of Re-Screening Phone Calls When Recruiting Participants

Step #3: Provide more details regarding the process ⚙️

With a traditional in-person approach, it is easy to share with participants where the focus group facility is located and what time they should arrive.

However, there are more steps and access to technology to confirm with the participant before the day of the online focus groups.

Our online focus group company goes over this with the participant during the follow-up phone call, in a confirmation email, and throughout our reminder communications. 

This level of communication is a major reason Drive Research does not adopt an automated market research recruitment. It is important nothing gets lost in translation. 

Step #4: Share what type of devices are needed ✔️

First, the recruiter should make sure the participant has either a laptop, desktop, smartphone, or tablet with a webcam and microphone, and internet access. 

Without a device with such equipment, participating in an online focus group would be impossible.

The recruiter will also explain that they should have a quiet place to be for the entire duration of the group discussion.

To ensure the participant is prepared, you should also explain the logistics of the remote focus group, such as:

  • The software you’ll be using
  • Sharing test links
  • How participants should join the group
  • When/how they receive payment (if an incentive was promised)

modern technology devices

Step #5: Sending the confirmation email 📧

After explaining how the remote focus group will work, the recruiter will send a confirmation email shortly after the phone call. 

The email will contain all of the important information discussed during the phone call, such as:

  • Date and time
  • Expectations
  • The link to join the focus group
  • Any other terms and conditions

The participant must reply to the email with a “yes” to confirm their seat in the online focus group and agree to the terms and conditions. 

Step #6: Reminder calls and texts 💬

This last step is Drive Research’s key to success.

Our remote focus group company completes reminder calls the day before the group and sends out reminder texts the day of.

In our experience, these reminders are essential to a perfect show rate for remote focus groups. 

During the reminder calls and texts, the recruiter is given another opportunity to explain the logistics of the online focus group and answer any questions. 

Typically, we’ll remind participants they need to:

  • Log on 10 minutes early to avoid any technical difficulties
  • Be in a quiet place for the entire discussion
  • Use a desktop or laptop with internet access, a camera/webcam, and a microphone

How to Conduct Online Focus Groups

The best way to explain how Drive Research conducts online focus groups is with a real-world example.

The process is similar to a typical focus group. However, the group is held virtually. 

In this section, we will outline our online focus group project executed on behalf of a leading manufacturer of an over-the-counter cold product.

The steps to conducting online focus groups include:

  1. Signed market research proposal
  2. Kickoff/introductory meeting
  3. Begin recruiting online focus group participants 
  4. Schedule participants for the remote groups
  5. Design a moderator's discussion guide
  6. Host the virtual focus group
  7. Report on the findings

1. Proposal 📃

In your search for an online focus group company, you will likely receive a few proposals.

In a market research proposal, you will be able to review the project timeline, process, and scope. The length and detail of a proposal will vary with each vendor. 

It may be a multi-page PDF document, or it may be a quote in an email string. When you make your choice of a remote focus group company, you will sign a document that outlines the responsibilities of both parties.

Once the proposal is signed, the project can begin!

Looking to create a market research RFP? Use our free-to-download template.

rfp template download by drive research

2. Kick-off Meeting 🤝

A kick-off meeting is important when executing any type of market research study. It allows the client and third party to understand the process, timeline, and main objectives. 

During our kick-off meeting for the online focus group, our team learned what type of participants the cold product manufacturer wanted to recruit for the focus groups.

For this project, all participants were required to have used a cold product during the previous cold season (October 2018 through March 2019). 

Each group consisted of 4 females and 2 males, aged 35 to 54, and a mix of other demographics

The 3 online focus groups were also separated by those who were users or brand loyalists to (1) the sponsor of the online focus group (2) a competitor (3) a competitor.

3. Recruitment 👩👨

Participants are recruited as they usually would (through phone lists, panels, social media, etc.) and are asked to join an online focus group. 

For this client, Drive Research recruited a total of 6 participants per online focus group. This was achieved by reaching out to our in-house targeted panel of participants living in the United States.

Our team also shared organic social media posts to attract interest from our thousands of followers.

4. Achieving a High Show Rate 👏

Those who qualified through the pre-screener survey were then rescreened by telephone to answer additional questions. 

From there, qualified participants received a confirmation email in the form of a calendar invite. By doing so, participants are asked to reply “yes” as another form of confirmation.

Additionally, the online focus group participants received a reminder call a day or two before the study was set to take place. 

Lastly, on the day of the online focus group (both Monday and Wednesday) participants were sent a final reminder text message. 

Though what may seem extremely thorough, this qualitative recruitment process of constant reminders helps our market research firm achieve a high participation rate.

Those who participated in the online focus groups received a $75 stipend, processed by Drive Research, as a thank-you for their time and insights.

5. Moderator’s Guide 📓

A moderator's guide is a document used by an online focus group moderator or interviewer to help standardize and add structure to the group discussion.

It includes a series of sequenced questions that are pre-written before the fieldwork. 

This is essentially the open-ended survey document used by the moderator to ask good thought-provoking questions during the focus group or interview.

Moderator's guides are the key to successful qualitative research, especially remote focus groups. It is a useful tool to ensure the discussion stays on track and that all objectives are addressed for your organization. 

A moderator's guide for an online focus group includes the following 4 components.

1. An introductory page.

This section is for internal use only. An introductory page labels the date(s), type(s) of groups, and the screening criteria used to recruit the participants.

2. An introduction or warm-up

This section is for the participants. It includes a little background from the moderator, ground rules, timing of the group, what to expect, and what the results of the research are used for. 

It's always good to include a fun and interactive warm-up activity to help get people comfortable and talking from the onset.

3. Section-by-section breakdown

A section-by-section breakdown of the online focus groups according to the objectives and themes of the research. Virtual focus groups typically work like a funnel. 

You start off with very general questions and topics before getting into the meat of the discussion around the middle of the group or toward the end. 

These sections are typically time-stamped to help guide the moderator through the 60-minute to 2-hour discussion.

4. A Conclusion

This wraps up any loose ends, including final thoughts or comments. 

6. Hosting the Online Focus Group 🎤

For this particular qualitative recruitment project, there were a total of 2 waves of 3 online focus group sessions. 

  • The online focus groups were held on Monday, June 17, and again, on Wednesday, June 19.
  • The groups were held consecutively at 5:30, 6:30, and 7:30 p.m. ET each evening.
  • Each of the 2 focus groups lasted 30 minutes, and participants were required to complete a 15-minute activity between the sessions.

In order to join the online focus group for the cold product, participants were required to use a meeting ID to sign into Zoom, a video communications company that provides remote conferencing services.

For this reason, participants needed to be on a device of sorts, whether it be a desktop, laptop, smartphone, or tablet with a webcam. Particularly participants using a smartphone or tablet needed to download a free app to take part in the focus group online.

During fieldwork, our online focus group company and moderator could assign observers or viewers to the board.

Here, the moderator grants access to team members from the cold manufacturer product sponsor. 

This allowed the client to write comments on the forum, which can only be seen by the moderator.

As a result, the moderator was able to follow up with participant questions based on specific questions from the client.

7. Reporting 📊

Most commonly, an online focus group report includes a background of the study as well as key findings from the group discussion. 

The background and methodology section for this client included:

  • Objectives: Why did the cold product manufacturer conduct the online focus groups? What were they hoping to uncover? 
  • Approach: What was the process for the remote focus groups? What type of participants were recruited? What was the incentive for participants to participate in the group discussion?
  • Participant Grid: Outlines participant personas such as their age, education level, and other demographics as it relates to the study.

The key findings section of a market research report outlines high-level questions asked in the online focus group.

It shares overall sentiment and responses from the participants. This section is most helpful in finding actionable insights to drive business decisions forward.

Lastly, our online focus group company includes an appendix in the report. The appendix includes both the recruitment screener survey and the moderator’s guide.

Drive Research reporting packages

Tips for Conducting Focus Groups Online

Drive Research has years of experience conducting focus groups online. Our experts have learned how to execute a seamless study for both our participants and our clients

In this section, Drive Research will share several tips every organization should know before starting an online focus group project.

Tips for successfully conducting online focus groups include:

  1. Use familiar video conferencing tools
  2. Allow for mobile participants
  3. Send calendar invites and reminders
  4. Share step-by-step instructions
  5. Ask participants to find a private space
  6. Budget time for technical difficulties
  7. Pay rewards immediately 

Tip #1: Leverage Familiar Video Conferencing Tools 

Several top video-conferencing platforms (such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or GoToMeeting) are familiar to many individuals and can be used to conduct a virtual focus group discussion.

While there are platforms designed specifically for video focus groups that provide additional features to support your recruitment process, the research discussion, and the analysis, they aren’t a “must” for getting started.

The tool you ultimately decide on depends heavily on the goals of your qualitative research discussion and the comfort level your organization has with the technology.

Tip #2: Allow for Mobile Participants 

Allow participants to connect via their smartphones. For the most part, smartphones are easily accessible to general consumers and are a great tool for participating in video focus groups.

With that said, it’s important to provide some guidance for participants such as:

  • Ensuring they have a strong connection (connect to WiFi if needed)
  • Using headphones to prevent feedback
  • Having the camera be stationary and placed on a desk/counter

Young Woman on a Sofa in a Video Phone Call

Tip #3: Send Calendar Invites (& many reminders) 

We all live by our smartphones with notifications and alerts guiding us through the day. Our phones help direct us from one meeting to the next with the “bings” we hear 10 minutes prior to each event.

Calendar invitations are not just for the corporate world.

Most consumer email platforms now automatically sync with the user’s calendar. These calendar invitations will help keep the video focus group top-of-mind and automatically remind the participants of the discussion.

The focus group psychology is to show the participants how important the session is.

Tip #4: Share Step-by-Step Instructions 

It’s important to provide simple and straightforward support material to your participants. This will help set expectations and make first-time participants more comfortable.

Providing a PDF with step-by-step instructions for logging in, an FAQ section and troubleshooting tips can be valuable.

Additionally, it’s important to provide participants with a test link when conducting video focus groups, allowing them to confirm their software is up-to-date and test their microphone and camera ahead of the group discussions. 

Tip #5: Ask Participants to Find a Private Space 🔒

One of the advantages of conducting in-person focus groups is that you have a captive audience, free from distractions.

For video focus groups, it’s important to ask your participants to find a quiet space for the duration of the discussion.

This could be a private office, bedroom, or another space, as long as it’s not outside, a loud space, or the participant trying to complete the discussion on the go.

Participants should be asked if they’ll be able to find a private space for the discussion during phone screenings. 

Tip #6: Budget Time for Technical Difficulties 😓

It’s important to request participants log in 5 to 10 minutes early.

Budgeting this additional time allows the participant and moderator to navigate last-minute technology issues (i.e. software updates, re-connecting a microphone, etc.).

This will ensure the moderator and participants can jump right into the research discussion without eating into the allotted time.

This time is also spent laying out the focus group ground rules.

Tip #6: Create a Moderator's Guide

A great moderator has a great moderator’s guide.

The ideal moderator’s guide starts with a summary of the focus groups (i.e., dates, times, audiences, recruiting plans), followed by the introduction and warm-up, sections of conversation, and then the wrap-up section.

The key to creating a great moderator’s guide is to outline the client’s key objectives and then craft a line of questioning to dive deeper into each of the objectives.

One of the tricks I’ve learned is that it’s helpful to start general and then dive into more specific questions.

In doing this, it’s also important to mix up the types of questions. Some groups thrive on broad, big-picture questions, while others thrive on more focused questions. 

The most critical piece is to pick up on whether participants are engaged and understand the question. If participants seem to be struggling, be able to pivot question phrasing.

Tip #7: Pay Rewards Immediately

Incentives should be distributed immediately after the conclusion of the research discussion.

Research participants are typically paid at the end of an in-person interview or in-person focus group.

There’s no reason to not pay rewards at the end of the online video focus groups. The rewards can easily be sent out in the form of eGift cards (i.e. Visa, Amazon, etc.).

It’s incredibly important to treat your research participants well and reward them in a timely manner. Research cannot be conducted without them!

Some of the best examples of focus groups in marketing are when participants are rewarded immediately.

happy young woman holding cash

Contact Our Online Focus Group Company

Drive Research is a New York market research company that conducts online focus groups across the country. We work with organizations to design, recruit, and moderate remote focus group sessions with key customers and non-customers.

Online focus groups can provide the same qualitative in-depth feedback as a traditional focus group, but at a fraction of the cost.

Interested in partnering with our team for your next online focus group? You can reach our team through any of the four ways below.

  1. Message us on our website
  2. Email us at [email protected]
  3. Call us at 888-725-DATA
  4. Text us at 315-303-2040

emily carroll about the author

Emily Rodgers

A SUNY Cortland graduate, Emily has taken her passion for social and content marketing to Drive Research as the Marketing Manager. She has earned certificates for both Google Analytics and Google AdWords.

Learn more about Emily, here.

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