Short answer: Yes, absolutely you can run a zoom focus group during Covid-19, and it can work out really well.

I just finished moderating three focus groups for an arts organization. Moderating focus groups has become a very enjoyable part of my data practice. It is a far cry from my typical data visualization work but it really stretches some unique mental muscles which is always good!

As with everything in our lives right now, there was the added twist of having to run these focus groups in the time of Covid-19 and thus over a Zoom call. I’ve written up a quick summary of what worked, what I would change and a few suggestions if you’re thinking of doing this yourself.

Quick note: I am referencing Zoom here because that’s what we used. The same principles and observations will still apply to other conferencing platforms.

First Impressions

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got started on the first session. I quickly realized that even though we were online, all the fundamentals still apply. Your role as moderator is to foster and direct a conversation around a series of topics in a way that is respectful to everyone involved and is as natural as possible. (I’ve put some links to helpful resources on the fundamentals of running a focus group and other things at the end of this post.)

At the beginning, a focus group is a little bit like a campfire. You put a lot of your own energy into getting it going and setting up the conditions for the kind of fire that you want. But, at a certain point the fire will be hot enough to sustain itself. On a Zoom call this is still possible but it takes longer to get started and the conversations require more ongoing support and guidance by the moderator.

I was impressed at how much everyone on the call was quite comfortable with Zoom. Sometimes too comfortable like when I would see people doing the dishes during the call! I was also surprised at how few technical issues we encountered. Over the course of three calls with around 15 people in total, there was only one person who had difficulty using Zoom. That was one of my biggest concerns going in so it was a relief to see that it was a non-issue.

What Worked Well

Keeping the groups small

The two most significant factors in the success of these focus groups were that the numbers were kept small and that we grouped participants based on their similarities. Each session had between four and seven participants. I think eight is probably the largest size group I would recommend without losing participation. And the benefit of grouping people by similarities (age, awareness, membership) allowed the group to feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and experiences although I’m not sure the participants were consciously aware of that.

No cross-talk (but also, no cross-talk!)

Being on a Zoom call did not allow for participants to easily talk over each other. This same limitation also hindered organic discussion between more than two people. There’s just no easy way to jump in.

Easy Video Recording

One thing that works really well was the automatic recording of each session. I found it even more important to be present and actively listening and watching participants. The video recording allowed me to do just that and not worry about note-taking.

On thing to note is that the video transcription of the session may take a few hours before it is ready. That’s a stressful couple hours waiting/hoping it will show up, but (finger’s crossed) I haven’t had any issues with it yet.

What Was Difficult

One challenge to a Zoom call is that you’re obviously not all in the same room. So we are missing the unspoken social contract and norms where everyone has agreed to show up in a room and participate. This can lead to some strange and unhelpful behaviours. A couple examples I witnessed were people doing chores around their house while participating, people muting themselves and clearly taking phone calls, sounds of people driving while on the call, not turning on their video camera and cats, lots of cats pushing their way on to people’s laps. Honestly, there’s not a lot you can do about this. I use my two rules from my days teaching to guide how I hand these situations: Don’t interfere with my ability to teach/moderate, and don’t interfere with other people’s ability to learn/participate.

My first tact is not to draw attention to interruption and refocus the conversation. However, at a certain point you’ll know if it is negatively impacting the group. At that point you do have the ability to mute people, "Julie, we’re having a hard time with some of the background noise so I’m going to mute you for a moment so that we can continue the discussion. Feel free to unmute yourself when you’re ready."

Don’t blame and shame people. This is hard for everyone, try to frame this as a way of supporting everyone in participating in the conversation.

Some Tips

Use the Grid View

I used the grid view the entire time. This enabled me to keep an eye out for participants who were getting ready to say something or trying to interject. Time permitting, I always came back to anyone who had being trying to contribute. Often this means blocking someone else from talking by saying something like, "Jackie, I see that you have a something to add here but first I’d like to check with Moira who had her hand up earlier. Afterwards I want to circle back to you Jackie, go ahead Moira."

Turn on people’s mics

Select the option to turn on people’s mics when they join the call. It removes one possible glitch when a person joins. People were a little bit embarrassed as they fumbled to find the unmute button.

Be relaxed, but not too relaxed!

Sit in a comfortable chair, but not too comfortable. For the first focus group I was sitting in a very comfortable swivel chair. I found I had to keep reminding myself not to slouch or twist in the chair too much. For the next groups I used a simple kitchen chair.

Respect people’s privacy

A Zoom call is a window into the personal lives of the participants so be respectful of personal space and privacy. Participants are allowing you into their home, don’t start nitpicking their spaces or people may withdraw or be embarrassed. The farthest I went was commenting on how nice a large painting was directly behind someone’s desk.

Best Practices

I tried to follow as many of the best practices for video calls as I could. One aspect specific to a focus group is body position and sound. I made sure I was sitting at a slight "conversational" angle. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t full on staring down the barrel of the webcam. And I wanted to make sure I had a quality microphone so my voice would be clear. I like the Snowball microphone for these purposes. It is so easy to use and works well.

Wrap Up

So, is it worth trying to do a Zoom based focus group in the time of Covid-19?? Emphatically yes! It was a lot more fun and effective than I expected.

If you are interested in running a focus group yourself I am always happy to talk and help you whether it be just a call for advice or running a session for you.

And please let me know what you think of this post. What did I miss? What was your experience??

Thanks, Stephen


Here’s some useful links to learn more about running focus groups in general and doing it at a distance: