The Tao of Virtual Focus Groups

Focus groups have been a mainstay of market research for a few decades now. In practice they are qualitative rather than quantitative events. This means that the conclusions you might draw from a small group of eight to ten people might be stunning, insightful, and impressive. But the results are not necessarily representative of your target market at large.

Why then would anyone want to consider insights from people who might not be representative of your market? Because there is something compelling about having a dialogue with real consumers. Focus groups facilitate a degree of feedback that is simply not possible with standard surveys. And while the results may not be representative of the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs of the market at large, it’s possible that your focus group can be right on the money. How can you increase the chances of your focus group being right on the money?

Make it a Virtual Focus Group.

Having managed and moderated over 800 Virtual Focus Groups in the last six years, let me 1) outline the process, and 2) highlight the value of our unique approach. The Tao of Virtual Focus Groups, if you will.

  1. A quick definition: a Virtual Focus Group (or VFG) is a two-hour event in which participants sit at a “virtual table.” All they need is a telephone and internet connection to participate. There are two clear advantages to a VFG over a live focus group. First, for what a live focus group will typically cost, you can conduct two and sometimes three VFGs. This means that you are hearing from 16 – 24 people in your target market rather than eight; this can significantly increase your confidence level in the conclusions you derive from this activity. Second, a live focus group limits you to a specific geographic area–not always a bad thing–but a VFG allows you to bring people from across several time zones and zip codes together.
  2. Our VFGs are “high touch” events. Typically we interact with the participants 8 – 12 times before and after the event. This is notable because in today’s socially networked world many of your VFG participants can actually become vocal champions for your product or service. Most people are pleased to be part of something BIG. If you manage the relationship properly not only do you get valuable insights from your participants, but you also create advocates and stakeholders.
  3. Every VFG begins with a qualifying screener. Think of this as a mini survey. Our goal is to find the most qualified participants from a larger population within your target market. We’ve learned that a properly designed screener can serve a dual function: 1) It helps you identify qualified participants, and 2) It produces valuable quantitative feedback from your market. Indeed, if you screen a few hundred people, why not construct the screening tool so that you capture actionable market intelligence as well.
  4. Many VFGs include a “pre-event activity.” This is an online activity that typically takes 15 – 30 minutes. We ask VFG participants to complete such an activity prior to the scheduled VFG. On one hand, it allows us to confirm their real interest and commitment to participate in the VFG, and on the other hand it allows us to present information or content that we want them to experience before the VFG. This can range from completing an actual product review to previewing a new concept. Important to note here is that we can present visuals, audio, video in the pre-event activity. It’s an effective way to gather additional insights from the participant as we get to know them better as people.
  5. Every VFG is professionally moderated and driven by a Discussion Guide (DG) that is carefully developed around the needs of each client. The DG is an interactive tool that presents a topic to be discussed, but it requires each participant to grade, rate or quantify something before we engage in discussion.This means that each participant sees a question on their computer screen, and they respond online before anyone vocalizes their thoughts. This approach has two advantages. First, it greatly reduces the possibility that one member of the VFG can influence the response of others because everyone has to “lock in” a response before we discuss the topic. Keep in mind that human beings can be influenced by others. It might be an especially articulate participant who sounds smart; others at the table might be inclined to agree with this person because they want to come across as smart as well. It happens. Likewise, we’ve seen situations where a participant is inclined to disagree with another participant because of factors such as geography, surname, or  the tonal quality of one’s voice. If you had a really bad dating experience in college with a guy from Boston whose baritone voice still lingers in your long-term memory bank, you might have a subconscious reaction to someone at the VFG table who reminds you of that person. It happens. The DG we develop for the VFG mitigates this possibility. The second advantage is that by having VFG participants provide ratings to certain questions we move the event more toward a quantitative activity. It’s really the best of both worlds. We measure reactions and then we discuss.
  6. The format of the VFG allows us to present a live demo of something–anything from software to a walkthrough of a website. We can also present video, audio or visuals. This means our clients can do everything from introducing a new concept for a product or service to presenting potential advertising and promotional approaches they’d like to get reactions to before launching to a wider audience.
  7. VFGs are recorded and we give you the option of having transcripts of the entire session.
  8. Most of our VFGs include a brief follow-up activity with the participants. This might be a brief survey with a few follow-up questions. It could be a brief interview in an effort to further build a relationship with the participant.
  9. All VFGs include a “Snap-Shot Report” produced by one of our analysts who has carefully reviewed the audio recording, transcript, and responses to the Discussion Guide. This is, in essence, an Executive Summary that details the conclusions we can draw from the VFG (or series of VFGs). It also provides a “Next Steps” overview that suggests potential strategies for the client to consider, including a plan for staying connected to those VFG participants who are most likely to be viral promoters of your product or service.
  10. With the Snap-Shot report in hand, we like to engage our clients in a brief 60-minute review of the results. Often times this meeting includes several stakeholders from our client company. It’s almost like having an internal Virtual Focus Group about the Virtual Focus Group. Often this meeting yields additional insights that become a key part of the client’s overall business strategy.


There you have it, our ten-point Tao of Virtual Focus Groups. Yet another way that research and relationships combine to produce meaningful results.