Until COVID-19 upended the world as we know it, advertising focus groups were in-person events, often held at special facilities where clients and agency staff could watch the responses from behind two-way glass. Earlier this year we scheduled a series traditional focus groups for the Perinatal Health Initiative (PEI) within the San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, Public Health Services. Then not long after finalizing our question guide and target audience demographics, COVID-19 hit the United States and we were faced with the choice to postpone or find another way. As our client is charged with the urgent mission of eliminating disparities in infant mortality between black infants and other racial groups, we knew it was imperative that we forge ahead.
Creating Ground Rules for Success
The first steps were easy. We made the decision to conduct the groups virtually and identified the best technology platform to host our groups. Then we identified a set of ground rules to manage participant engagement. The rules stipulated that:
- All personal communication devices would be turned off and participants would be in a quiet, private environment for the duration of the call.
- Everyone would participate in the discussion with the moderator tracking responses and ensuring everyone had a chance to share
- Participants would provide an immediate written answer for each question via the chat feature
- Following the written answers, the moderator would pause to review the responses and ask clarifying questions where necessary.
- Participants would need to show respect for the opinions of others and wait until the speaker’s comments concluded before stating a different point of view
Planning for Potential Challenges
Going into the process the team had three main concerns:
- Difficulty of recruiting enough qualified participants with all attention on the pandemic – particularly because we needed input from nurses, pediatricians and OBGYNs
- Participant access to technology and comfort level with using video conferencing and chat features
- Moderator ability to manage conversation flow and read non-verbal cues while also reading chat responses and ensuring every participant was being heard.
Based on these potential challenges, the team increased the usual participant payment from $50 to $100 for consumers and up to $150 to $300 for healthcare professionals.
Zoom was also chosen as the technology platform for ease of use and familiarity and the group size was limited to ensure the moderator could effectively manage engagement.
After conducting the sessions, our team regrouped to discuss outcomes, review participant feedback, and identify overall best practices for future virtual sessions. The findings indicate the virtual format created a number of unique advantages:
- It is easier to recruit a wide range of qualified participants if they don’t have to leave home. Participants indicated that traveling to an unknown location creates a significant barrier to participation that will extend beyond the current stay-at-home orders.
- The onscreen name and tile format of the Zoom platform enabled the moderator to easily call on each participant while simultaneously reviewing incoming chat responses leading to a natural call flow and higher levels of engagement.
- Providing immediate, written answers to questions via the chat format increased individual accountability and authenticity. While in-person participants often hold and change answers based on group chat; the online responses were quickly recorded and final which led to increased engagement and a wider range of points of view.
We shared initial findings with our client this week and they were thrilled with the results. While the online format may not work for all uses–new product sampling or product usability testing as examples–it worked incredibly well for message and advertising testing. The hosting technology worked seamlessly, and we were able to recruit highly qualified participants who provided more in-depth and authentic feedback than sometimes comes from in-person group settings. While we continue to look forward to getting business back to normal, virtual focus groups are carving out a role and here to stay.