B2B NewsPet industry newsB2B Focus Groups: Virtual for the Win

B2B Focus Groups: Virtual for the Win


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Everyone is using a webcam. It’s a fact. Whether it’s for work or for communicating with distant relatives, many people are now “on camera” almost daily. In many ways this change is similar to the one that happened from 1984 through the mid-1990’s when computer users shifted from keyboard usage only to keyboard and mouse usage. Leading to today where users regularly use a keyboard, a mouse, VOIP, and a webcam.

This increased use of webcams combined with the restrictions brought forth by the COVID pandemic have accelerated an already growing trend in the way we conduct qualitative research, especially focus groups. Previously, a large number of focus groups were conducted on-site and in-person. And the group was made up of individuals located within driving distance of the test facility. Now, the changes in the average users’ technology tools allow us to conduct qualitative research virtually.

Yet, conducting research in a virtual space comes with its own challenges. Are participants paying attention? Are they engaged? Is the client able to be a part of the process? To generate the best quality data, the researcher must modify their techniques to overcome these challenges.

As we move through this blog, we’re going to talk about new opportunities in virtual qualitative research and which techniques achieve the highest quality responses.

Virtual Research Companies: We Grow Great Virtual Moderators

As a virtual company, with employees based across the United States, our team is very comfortable with driving decisions, collaborating with clients, and conducting research efforts via a virtual environment.

Given this experience we’ve learned a few things that are different about running virtual focus groups vs. their in-person counterparts. In a virtual setting, moderators must work harder to create naturally flowing conversation, ensure that all participants are engaged, and obtain quality responses that drive actionable takeaways to name a few.

Webcams: Good for More than Coffee Pots

We’ve come a long way since the first webcam was used to monitor a coffee pot in 1993. Webcams are now ubiquitous. Your phone, your tablet, your laptop, and perhaps, somewhat creepily, your TV, all have webcams.

Beyond all the benefits webcams provide to remote workers and remote family members, this same rapid growth in webcam usage can provide a springboard for increasing participant engagement.

For example, if cameras are turned on during a virtual focus group it is a trivial exercise for a moderator to determine the level of participant engagement at any point in time. Plus, moderators can ask participants to communicate nonverbally by raising their hand or nodding to indicate consensus quickly and without interrupting other participants. Finally, this tactic saves time to explore other dissenting views, or introduce new topics that can also yield interesting insights.

Shush the Chattering

Sometimes there are participants who are a little too eager to share their thoughts. This takes time away from other participants and sometimes even drives the conversation in the wrong direction. In this instance, the moderator must take control of the conversation and give others a chance to talk.

The moderator should be subtle when trying to shush an overly-talkative participant. In person, the moderator can use discreet hand signals to quiet participants. Virtually, moderators should wait until the chatty participant is at a stopping point and call on other participants. If the problem persists, the moderator can choose to call out a different, less talkative participant for feedback before opening discussion to the rest of the group.

Shape Stakeholder Feedback

A good research firm understands their chosen industry and can guide clients on how to obtain the most insightful data from their research. However, a great research firm also knows not to underestimate the client’s viewpoint. After all, they see their customers every day. Combining the expertise of both researchers and stakeholders yields the best recommendations and research results.

In person, stakeholders usually observe the focus group from behind a mirror. Participants never see them and are unaware of how many people, if any, are viewing them behind the scenes. Virtually, a focus group moderator wants to create the same environment.

Moderators achieve this by directing stakeholders to provide input in a separate chat with the research team. However, if stakeholders are active, it can be challenging to juggle their input while remaining focused on participants. Moderators can alleviate this by encouraging stakeholders to filter all input through a single person, or a small team. This limits the number of messages a moderator receives during the meeting. It also ensures that stakeholder feedback filters through more than one person before going to the moderator.

Create an Open, Disruption-Free Environment

In a traditional focus group setting, there are two moderators. One focuses on the participants and interacting with the group. The other works with the client, obtaining their input on where to shift focus or probe further. This second moderator frequently moves between the client room and the meeting room, carrying notes to the first moderator. This can be disruptive to the group.

In a virtual setting, client communications can happen much more seamlessly. Clients and moderators can chat in a separate channel without interruptions to the group’s conversation. This allows the group to be conducted with only one moderator.  Or, it allows both moderators to focus on the participants and their responses rather than running back and forth.

Another thing to consider is how stakeholders present themselves on a video call. If focus group participants see several observers on the call, they might feel intimidated and adjust their responses. Therefore, it’s a good idea to ask stakeholders to either call in as a group or only have the key stakeholders call in. Other interested parties will always have access to the recorded call.

Finally, encourage stakeholders on the call to always turn their cameras off and change their name to their initials or first name only. This eliminates opportunities for a participant to connect the dots to where a stakeholder works, which can definitely alter responses.

Take Advantage of In-Platform Tools

After the focus group, it’s time to collect the findings. Rather than sifting through scribbled notes, moderators should use the built-in toolsest found in nearly any web conferencing solution.

Meeting platforms can record meetings, share recordings, and create transcripts. These tools make it easier to quickly synthesize data and create actionable takeaways for the client. Some meeting platforms also allow you to launch virtual polls. Polls provide researchers with instantaneous feedback and a quick way to validate, quantitatively, what was recently stated by the group.

For example, we recently worked with a value-added reseller to test marketing messaging. We tested seven messages, getting qualitative feedback from focus group participants on each one. After each round of qualitative feedback we then launched a short poll that asked each participant to rate how well each message resonated with them.

As a final point, when researchers are conducting multiple focus groups, virtual polls provide a quick way to compare how responses differ across groups, roles, job titles, and even geographies.

Virtual Recruiting: Recruit Anyone from Anywhere

One of the biggest and most obvious advantages of going virtual is that geographical location is no longer a factor. A single focus group can now contain participants from all over the world.

This not only allows for more diversity in a focus group, but makes recruiting much easier. Researchers no longer need to find six to eight system administrators in the greater Chicago area. Instead, researchers can widen their search to anyone in the United States, or further, as long as they’re available during the time of the focus group.

Virtual Impact: The Devil’s Advocate Has Entered the Chat

We can adapt our techniques to fit the virtual space, but are the insights we’re collecting virtually as good or better quality than those collected in-person? Two Cascade Insights researchers think that they’re getting better, more honest feedback in a virtual setting.

“I feel like people are more likely to speak up if they disagree remotely, than if they’re all in the same room. Oftentimes, if five people agree with something, the 6th person will just sit quietly and think, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I agree with these people?’ Whereas in a virtual environment they’ll disagree, especially these days where social media has emboldened everyone to speak their truth.” — Laurie Pocher, Senior Consultant, Cascade Insights

“There is less groupthink in general because people are more comfortable disagreeing in a virtual environment. Maybe disagreeing is even too strong, it’s more like sharing a different perspective.” — Nora Canright, Research Analyst, Cascade Insights

This willingness to disagree with other participants could be due to the online disinhibition effect. This refers to how people behave differently online than they would in person because of how the brain processes virtual interactions as “less real” than those in person.

Qualitative Research: It’s a Small World After All

Disney has told us for years “it’s a small world after all.” While hardly anyone can forget the song, “It’s a Small World,” after you first hear it, many fail to remember this bit of the lyrics to the song.

Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It’s a small world after all

For market researchers and stakeholders this perennial song (and ride) holds the same truth it did when it was first released, slightly over 56 years ago. The world is smaller than we think, and bridging it, especially with the technology on hand today, is simply trivial. If we don’t use technology to our advantage, as market researchers and stakeholders, we’re missing an opportunity to understand important perspectives, regional differences, and mindsets that we need to hear.

As one last piece of inspiration, if you haven’t made the world smaller through virtual focus groups, drop us a note, and we’ll be happy to chat. As we can show you how to bridge those mountains and oceans that divide you from perspectives you need to hear.

This blog post is brought to you by Cascade Insights, a firm that provides market research & marketing services exclusively to organizations with B2B tech sector initiatives. Want to learn more about the market research we deliver? Our B2B Market Research services can help.

Special thanks to Sean Campbell, Co-Founder & CEO, Tyler Honsinger, Director of Research, Laurie Pocher, Senior Consultant, and Nora Canright, Research Analyst, for advising on this piece.

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Alexis Ford

Alexis Ford

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Laurie Pocher

Laurie Pocher

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Nora Canright

Nora Canright

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Sean Campbell

Sean Campbell is the CEO of Cascade Insights, a competitive intelligence and market research firm for B2B technology companies. A 20-year technology veteran, Sean oversees the health of the firm, drives the company’s thought leadership efforts and maintains relationships with key clients.

Sean Campbell

Sean Campbell

Sean Campbell

Latest posts by Sean Campbell (see all)

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