A year ago, I authored this post where I talked about some of the more effective approaches and tips I’ve employed to get the most out of the in-person focus groups and dial testing groups I’ve conducted over three decades of market research. That, of course, was pre-COVID-19 pandemic. We now live and operate in a world where in-person research isn’t practical—at least for the time being.

As researchers, adapting to this new “normal” certainly presents its challenges. But I can attest, as someone who has conducted hundreds of online research studies, there are some silver linings to moving your research approach online—and right now, we can all use some silver linings.

In my experience, almost anything that you can do in an in-person focus group, you can do online. You may need to get comfortable with certain technologies or find a technology partner, like Dialsmith, to help support your approach. But you can do it.

Similar to in-person focus groups, I’ve developed a list of best practices over time that have helped me maximize the effectiveness of my online focus groups and overcome some of the challenges.


Certainly, it’s a different type of challenge keeping respondents engaged online than when we’re all together in a room. One thing I do to make sure my online respondents are engaged from the start is to be sure to have a proper introduction at the beginning. I go around the “virtual room” and encourage each respondent to introduce themselves and share something personal. I will usually kick it off myself to break the ice. I also set expectations in advance of the group session, making sure they understand that they are to, “Treat this like a job…” and that, “They are receiving an incentive for being fully present and engaged for the entire session…” and that, “They need to make sure that they are not disrupted by children, pets, etc. during the session.”

I’ve also found that a tactic that works well for in-person sessions also works well online. I note any respondents who haven’t participated in the last few minutes and will call on them first when I pose a new question to the group. After a while, they begin to realize they may get put on the spot if they don’t contribute, which is a pretty good motivator for those who don’t naturally like to speak up.


A challenge of any online research can be the technical fluency and/or limitations of respondents. Bandwidth is always a consideration, and can be an issue for some respondents. I try to minimize any technical issues by conducting pre-session tech checks. I also ask respondents to log on early and make sure I have a technical support person on stand-by to troubleshoot potential issues. This is where using a reliable tech services or consulting partner is worth the investment—they focus on making sure everything runs smoothly from a technical standpoint, which allows me to focus on moderating my sessions and getting the most out of my respondents.


Respondents aren’t the only ones you have to be sure to keep engaged throughout an online session. I do a few things to ensure my clients are engaged, as, in many cases, this is a different experience than the traditional focus groups they are used to. I use a virtual “backroom” so that my clients can observe the group interactions and dial testing results together, and I make sure clients have an easy way to real-time chat with me and each other. I also plan a client-only, post-session debrief typically using the same meeting platform I’ve used for the group session.

So, yes, there are challenges to conducting your qual research online, but every type of research presents it’s own challenges. It’s important to remember that you do not have to fundamentally change your research approach when moving online. You may need to adapt a bit and give yourself time to get up-to-speed with the technology, but you can do it! If you’re still feeling your way through an online focus group approach, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you’re looking for some real-world advice on this topic.