Online Focus Groups – Using ZOOM Technology to Gather Perspectives: Part 2
Do you need information from a diverse group of people across a wide geographic area in a short period of time? Consider conducting online focus groups.
A Michigan State University Extension colleague and I had been asked to facilitate a statewide strategic plan and needed to quickly learn about the issues, trends and perceptions the stakeholders were facing. Our information gathering process of choice was to use focus groups, but the stakeholders were spread across the state and there was neither time nor money to meet with them personally.
In Part I of this story, we stated that we would attempt to conduct focus groups via technology, gathering multiple people to be interviewed at the same time in the same virtual room. In order to make this happen we needed to be sure of three key components:
- Technology that was simple to use
- Participants willing to participate
- A solid plan for delivery
The simple technology we chose to use was ZOOM video-conferencing. Participants connected to the meeting via their computer, smart phone or tablet. During the one-hour session, all participants could be in the same on-screen room, seeing each other live and responding instantaneously–almost like a face-to-face meeting!
Next, we needed to determine if key stakeholders would be willing to meet in this ZOOM online format and openly discuss their perceptions about the statewide program. We emailed potential participants, describing the focus group purpose and offering registration via an online scheduling tool, Doodle. Stakeholders of similar interests were grouped together and one-hour time slots were determined for each interest group. Participant numbers were limited. Those first to register were accepted, up to 12 per session. To our delight, there were many willing participants and the focus group meetings were confirmed.
For the delivery plan, it was important to ensure the information conveyed during each session was consistent and achieved our purpose, which was to gather information from as many key stakeholders as possible, to understand their diverse points-of-view and use the information to prepare a strategic planning process that would be meaningful for the participants.
An introduction was composed that included the purpose, background facts about the program, specific information about the upcoming planning retreat, criteria to guide the discussion and five open-ended questions. This preface was read aloud to participants at the start of each session.
We asked for permission to record the session and informed participants that we would also be taking notes. They were assured the recorded sessions would be viewed only by us for planning purposes and personal identification would be kept confidential.
After each session, my colleague and I debriefed the key points we heard, and immediately wrote a one-page summary. Despite the different interest groups, several consistent themes emerged over the course of the nine focus group sessions.
In addition to the online focus groups, an expansive, survey was sent to all program affiliates with an email address in the state program system. The surveys major themes were merged then with the focus group results to develop five critical issue statements, very much like a SWOT analysis, and were used to frame the 2-day planning retreat,
Our experience with conducting both in-person focus groups and online focus groups is that they are comparable and worthwhile for gathering useful information from a diverse group of individuals.