The following post is by DeNel Rehberg Sedo–a frequent research partner.
By now, readers of this blog know that there is no complete separation between our online life and our offline one. No matter if we try to limit our time in front of the computer screen, we still maintain connected to our children, friends or clients via our smartphones or tablets. These new communication platforms have the potential to stress us out because we’re always connected, but they also help us reach out when we need to. New communication technologies have always caused humans to wring their hands with concern. They’ve also always provided avenues for progress.
Professional communicators know the value of research before, during and after any strategically planned campaign. In the Communications Studies program at Mount Saint Vincent University, we teach research methods not only as a class of its own, but also in any course where communication planning is discussed or assigned. In the working world, however, it’s only the wise and successful communicators that take the time to properly engage with research. Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re one of the smart ones. You recognize the value of research.
One of the most common and useful forms of qualitative research is the focus group. It’s convenient, exploratory, and relatively inexpensive for the amount of data that can be collected. Throughout my professional and scholarly career, I’ve moderated hundreds of groups and am always pleasantly surprised by the richness of the data that can be uncovered in effective groups– whether face-to-face or online.
The Sample
As in face-to-face focus groups, the people you select for an online focus group need to reflect not only the demographic of your intended audience or public, but they also need to be screened for a specific comfort level with virtual discussion. This type of literacy is becoming more and more commonplace as North Americans participate in online forums, social media or use their cell phones for texting. Working closely with us to determine the types of people you want to investigate is an imperative part of the research process. The recruiters we use at Thinkwell do a good job of looking for people who fit the requirements of our clients. They provide us with detailed information about the participants, which in an online environment is useful because as the moderator, I can switch from screen to screen if I need to find out something about the person who is texting or talking. I can then follow up or probe with relevant questions or comments. This is not necessarily possible in a face-to-face setting when the participants are sitting around a table or living room looking at me.
The Moderator and Moderator’s Guide
When I teach research methods to my communication students, I emphasize that contrary to popular belief, the moderator is an expert researcher. Too many times I hear about failed focus groups because the data that was collected didn’t reveal sufficient answers. This might be because the moderator is someone from inside the organization who a) doesn’t have the expertise or the experience necessary to guide the discussion and / or tease out deep responses, or b) is someone who isn’t arm’s length away from the communication project. I think it’s important to employ a moderator who has been trained to foster useful information gathering from group participants. In an online environment, the moderator needs to be fully comfortable with the technology and the platforms within which the groups take place.
The moderator must understand the needs of you, the customer, and should be someone who does background research outside of what is discussed in your meetings. If the moderator is an in-house communicator, she may be too close to the project and will naturally guide the discussion in a way that will reveal expected or desired outcomes. Having an arms-length moderator lead the discussion will ensure that the results are as unbiased as possible.
The Moderator’s Guide is a result of the research and communication teams’ discussions and the work that they do beforehand. In a virtual environment, and especially in one that supports text-chats, the guide is “seeded” before the groups take place. Along with the questions, the moderator can strategically place probes and follow up questions. She can test the visuals and work with the flow of the planned discussion. This pre-work allows for smooth virtual conversation.


The Conversation
One of my favourite functions of moderating in an online environment is the ability to probe or follow up privately with a focus group participant. This is especially important if a person says something that I need to clarify and if the topic is sensitive or embarrassing. Our clients use this function, too, when they want me to probe or to follow up. In a face-to-face group, these client questions usually come at the end of the discussion when all of the participants need to be reminded of the earlier conversation, thus losing the value of spontaneity.
Of course, there are sometimes technological issues that can hinder smooth communication. I remember doing an online focus group last year in which one of the participants was trying to use his mobile phone to participate. Everyone else was on their home computer, as was requested by our recruiter. This person was in his car on the 401 near Toronto, and kept complaining that he couldn’t see the pdf visuals we were talking about! Aside from the safety issue, I was concerned about his inability to see what we were discussing. In the end, our supplier asked him to withdraw from the group, and luckily (I think) he made it home okay.
The virtual focus group software company we use at Thinkwell has a fantastic tech help team. The driver-participant wasn’t the only person in that set of focus groups who had problems with the visuals, but I didn’t worry a bit or lose time in the discussion because the tech person was behind the scenes communicating privately with the affected participants. Real time tech help and support is imperative if you’re going to do virtual focus groups.
The Results
In online groups where the conversation is text-chat based, the discussion is ready for analysis immediately. There’s no need to transcribe. This is a dream for those of us who do semiotic analysis of the conversations. In groups that are voice based, the conversation is recorded and with the help of software, we analyse the digital data. It’s more cumbersome than dealing with written words, but with technology’s help, the rich data is readily available for analysis.
Rich data. That’s the benefit of using qualitative research. We all know that one cannot generalize from qualitative research, but it has its use in almost every communication campaign. In some cases, virtual groups can provide even richer data than those in traditional focus groups.
Dr. DeNel Rehberg Sedo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University. She has also collaborated with Thinkwell on a number of online research projects.

11 Feb 2013