The COVID-19 pandemic has forced researchers to think creatively about data collection because standard approaches, such as conducting in-person focus groups, are not currently feasible due to social distancing guidelines. As a result, there is an increasing need to share best practices for conducting virtual focus groups and to expand our understanding of how to maximize the potential benefits of this data collection medium. Upward trends in internet use and smartphone access lay a promising groundwork for incorporating virtual focus groups into research, both during and after the pandemic.
When the pandemic arrived in the United States, Child Trends was in the midst of in-person data collection as part of a larger project to evaluate the Manhood 2.0 program—a gender-transformative initiative that encourages adolescent and young adult males, ages 15 to 24, to reflect on harmful gender norms as a gateway to preventing teen pregnancy and building healthy relationships. As a result of the pandemic, six of the evaluation’s eight scheduled focus groups were implemented virtually on Zoom.
This brief provides researchers with some potential benefits of conducting virtual focus groups, in addition to planning considerations for navigating the virtual setting before, during, and after the focus groups. The benefits, considerations, and tips provided below are based on our project’s experience conducting virtual focus groups, as well as existing research on virtual focus groups.
In 2018, Child Trends collaborated with Promundo and the Latin American Youth Center to evaluate the Manhood 2.0 program. To better inform Manhood 2.0 program content, Child Trends set out to conduct focus groups with young women of color, ages 16 to 24, from underserved neighborhoods in the Washington, DC area in early 2020. For the six (of eight) scheduled focus groups that were implemented virtually on Zoom, we reached a total of 31 young women, nearly half of whom were Black and Latinx young parents. We provided $40 e-gift cards to all participants.
Virtual focus groups may offer unexpected benefits for both participants and facilitators.
Virtual groups allow more people to speak up. In-person focus groups often include both dominant and more reserved participants. We found that a virtual setting lends itself to an approach in which participants answer questions one at a time, allowing for more diversity of voices. Virtual focus group participants tend to answer each protocol question and share evenly throughout the group, which can be more challenging within an in-person setting.
Offering focus groups virtually may be more inclusive of hard-to-reach populations. Given that 81 percent of the U.S. population has access to a smartphone and roughly 75 percent of U.S. adults have broadband internet services at home, virtual focus groups may increase geographic reach and foster greater inclusivity of hard-to-reach populations in research and data collection. Nearly half of our focus group participants were young parents; hosting virtual groups allowed them to join while also taking care of their children.
Reducing the travel burden on participants may improve attendance rates. Participants were able to attend the virtual focus group without needing to account for the cost and time of transportation, which can improve attendance rates. Across the six virtual focus groups, we maintained attendance numbers close to our goal (four to six participants per group). Additionally, the virtual setting allows increased flexibility to replace participants who cancel at the last minute.
Audio quality on recorded playbacks was better in the virtual setting. We recorded the virtual focus groups through an encrypted recording device and found that the audio quality exceeded the quality of our in-person recordings. This may be because participants were likely to mute themselves when not speaking and wore earphones consistently. Clearer audio offered the added benefit of recordings that were easier to transcribe.
Focus group participants reported positive experiences. When researchers collect qualitative data on sensitive topics such as sexual behaviors or romantic relationships, virtual focus groups may allow participants to answer questions more honestly and provide more in-depth responses. Research finds that virtual focus group participants may feel a greater sense of anonymity, and may therefore be more open to sharing personal experiences. After each virtual focus group, we solicited the young women’s feedback; their responses reflected these findings:
“It feels really good to be in the comfort of your own home answering the questions … I feel like you can be yourself and be able to answer truthfully and not be really scared to say what you actually have to say without getting any dirty looks from across the room, because you can ignore it on camera but it’s kind of hard to ignore it when it’s in your face.”
“I like the safe space, how you can say whatever you want.”
“I thought it was pretty cool. I mean, it was very … it was as interactive as we would have been if we were in person, so I thought it was pretty cool.”
We recognize that conducting focus groups may pose some challenges that researchers should consider.
Virtual focus groups may be better suited to smaller groups. We found that smaller groups (four to six participants) result in more active and equal engagement among participants. If research projects choose to organize smaller groups, they may need to budget for more groups (with fewer participants) to obtain their desired sample size. This will have cost implications, which may or may not be offset by the lack of transportation costs for participants (which must otherwise be reimbursed). One participant said:
“I like the small group because we get to hear more. Even though it’s less people, we get to hear more about certain stories and opinions and stuff.”
Facilitators may need additional training. Facilitators may need additional time to familiarize themselves with the virtual platform and its features. They should also consider alternative ways to engage participants online (e.g., utilizing features such as hand raising or the chat function) because of the added challenge of reading social cues.
Some participants may not have access to a device with wireless internet capabilities. To address this challenge and ensure inclusivity, we worked with our recruitment partners to identify alternative ways to participate in virtual focus groups, such as borrowing a device with wireless capabilities or allowing participants to join via phone. Projects may also consider purchasing cellular data for focus group participants to reduce any barriers to participation.
Some participants may not have access to a private space during the pandemic. With multiple people in many homes during the pandemic, participants may not have a safe or private space in which to participate in the focus group. To partially address this issue, we encouraged our participants to go outside if the weather permitted. In the future, researchers can work with local partners to provide alternative spaces for participation (e.g., at a community center).
Online platforms can be draining when used for an extended amount of time. It can be easy for participants to lose focus or get distracted in a virtual setting, so try to limit focus groups to one hour. Facilitators will often need to reiterate their questions. If participants are joining on a computer, facilitators can keep them engaged by pasting the protocol questions in the chat box for reference or, alternatively, sharing a screen showing the protocol questions.
Select a secure platform. The first step in moving focus groups to a virtual format is to choose an online platform that is both secure and user-friendly. We chose Zoom for our virtual focus groups. For steps on securing your Zoom meeting, see this article. Other secure platforms include GoToWebinar, WebEx, JamBoard, and Mural.
Pilot the platform. Piloting the platform is useful for testing sound quality and virtual focus group procedures (i.e., joining the group, obtaining consent, recording the focus group, etc.). Because most participants planned to join the focus groups on their phones, we tested the platform on both the phone and computer to become familiar with the different interfaces.
Choose a secure method to record the virtual focus group. With the growing need to conduct focus groups virtually, securely recording focus groups is an essential step to protect participant privacy. For the utmost security, we used an encrypted recording device to record the focus groups and saved all recordings on a secure drive immediately after each group concluded.
Update data collection and recruitment materials. When collecting data virtually, pre-existing focus group protocols or recruitment scripts may need to be amended with specific guidelines for a virtual platform. For example, we included virtual platform tips and suggestions in our protocol introduction. Additional updates to consent forms, data security checklists, and eligibility criteria should also be submitted to the IRB for approval.
Ensure that participants have access to a device (phone, computer, tablet, etc.) with wireless capabilities. To account for this eligibility requirement, we updated our recruitment script to include a question on access to technology. Recruiters should consider how virtual focus groups may impact who is able to participate based on access to a device with wireless connection, and to think through potential alternatives, mentioned in the Considerations section.
Track potential participants. We used Google Forms to have participants sign up for the virtual focus groups. Once the potential participant confirmed their interest and availability, we stored any personally identifiable information (PII) in a password-protected Excel spreadsheet.
Keep organized during recruitment. Staying organized during recruitment by using calendar blocks can help with managing fast-turnaround data collection. We found that sending individual calendar invites to participants was effective in getting them to confirm their availability and attend the focus groups.
Schedule reminder emails, texts, and calls. To stay organized and keep participants engaged, recruiters should set a schedule and send frequent reminders to participants about upcoming focus groups. We sent reminders three days before, the day before, and the morning of the focus group—leading with a reminder about the incentive.
Have alternate participants ready. Our recruitment partner had a list of one to two alternates who could join the focus group if anyone cancelled at the last minute. Because participants can join on short notice and do not need to account for the time and cost of travel or child care, it is easier to find quick replacements for virtual groups.
If possible, provide focus group materials to participants prior to conducting the focus group. Prior to hosting the discussion, we met individually with potential participants on Zoom to 1) test the platform and ensure that they felt comfortable with the technology, and 2) provide important materials, such as the consent form, virtual platform tips/troubleshooting documents, a summary of the focus group questions, and group rules and reminders (e.g., joining somewhere private, muting oneself, and using “I” statements). We found that meeting with potential participants before the focus group helped establish relationships and made participants more comfortable and willing to join the conversation.
Establish relationships with partner organizations for recruitment support. Establishing relationships with partner organizations that have good rapport with potential participants can result in group referrals and ongoing recruitment support. We found that participants with shared connections—either through a program or a community group—were more likely to join the focus group and engage in the discussion.
Join early for troubleshooting. Have participants join the focus group 10 to 15 minutes before starting to troubleshoot any technological difficulties.
Remind participants to join the discussion from somewhere private. Ideally, participants will be in a private space at the time of the call. Remind them to find a quiet place to participate in the focus group and to use earphones, if possible.
Request that participants join with video. Ideally, projects should aim to have participants join with video to improve the group dynamic, but this is not a requirement. It is important to remember that participants may not have access to a private space and may prefer to keep their video off. If the focus group will be conducted over video, let participants know that only the audio will be recorded.
Take turns and use the mute function when not speaking. At the beginning of the focus group, remind participants that they should stay on mute until they would like to speak. Facilitators can reiterate that they would like to hear from all participants equally.
Acknowledge appreciation for participants up front. At the onset of a focus group, it is important to acknowledge that focus groups are not typically conducted virtually. Facilitators should emphasize their appreciation for participants’ willingness to take part and welcome their feedback at the end of the group.
Obtain virtual verbal consent. All focus group participants should receive the consent form prior to the focus group. At the beginning of the group, we let participants know that, to provide consent, they should say their name and state yes/no as to whether they 1) agree to participate in the focus group and 2) agree to be recorded. Any updates to the verbal consent script should be submitted to the IRB for approval.
Think through ways to maintain participant engagement. Facilitators can introduce the idea of having participants raise their hands to speak. They may also say, “For those who haven’t spoken up a lot, what do you think?” Facilitators can gauge the group to see whether gentle nudges feel appropriate for getting individuals to speak up.
Prepare electronic gift cards prior to the focus groups. Preparing incentive emails ahead of time can facilitate a quick and efficient incentive distribution process. We maintained detailed tracking information for each participant, organized by the date and time of their focus group and saved on a secure drive. Keeping this information organized helped us prepare the incentives to be distributed immediately after the focus group ended.
Consider purchasing food gift cards. Because it is customary to provide food at focus groups, we chose to provide a gift card for a food delivery service, such as UberEATS or Grubhub, so that participants could purchase food to eat during the group or later. If participants plan to purchase food for the group, recruiters can provide the gift cards 30 minutes prior to the start of the group to reduce any disruptions. Otherwise, recruiters can send the gift cards right before the group discussion begins, as last-minute cancellations may occur. Remind participants that the full incentives are distributed at the end of the group.
Chris Charles is a Health Promotion Program Manager for the Latin American Youth Center and led recruitment for the female focus groups.
This publication was made possible by Grant Number 5U01DP006129, which is a partnership between the Office of Population Affairs (OPA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Research and Demonstration Program, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Reproductive Health. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the OPA, HHS, or CDC.
 Pew Research Center. (2020). Mobile Fact Sheet. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/
 Forrestal, S. G., D’Angelo, A. V., & Vogel, L. K. (2015). Considerations for and lessons learned from online, synchronous focus groups. Survey Practice, 8(2), 1-8.
 Lewis, F. & Muzzy, S. (2020). Conducting Virtual Focus Groups. MDRC. https://www.mdrc.org/publication/conducting-virtual-focus-groups
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