Online focus groups – using ZOOM technology to gather perspectives: Part 1

Do you need geographic and demographic information in a short period of time? Consider conducting online focus groups.

Recently, a Michigan State University Extension colleague and I were asked to facilitate a strategic planning session for a large and diverse population of individuals across the state of Michigan. They all had one thing in common—a direct affiliation with a statewide program.

The primary challenge was to gather information quickly from as many key stakeholders as possible, with the goal of understanding their diverse points-of-view. This information would then be used to prepare a process for the upcoming strategic planning retreat, and to develop a facilitated structure that would be meaningful for the participants.

By definition, focus groups are carefully planned discussions designed to assess needs, opportunities, perceptions, trends, opinions or attitudes in a nonthreatening environment.  Focus groups consist of small groups (6-12 people) with similar interests and generally last about an hour. This process encourages open sharing and the prospect of expanding upon each other’s ideas without much conflict. Two to five key questions are usually developed, with the intention of guiding respondents toward offering information directly related to the purpose of the focus group.

With little time, few travel dollars and key stakeholders scattered throughout the state, my colleague and I decided to move ahead with conducting several online focus group sessions. We assessed that this process was an excellent opportunity to meet and better understand our planning audience.  In addition, the participants’ input could provide background information important in developing the planning retreat.  Actually, in retrospect, we learned so much more through this online interviewing experience than we ever expected!

Our focus group effort began with the assumption that three key components were necessary to move forward:

  • A simple online technology that allowed multiple people to be interviewed at the same time and in the same virtual room
  • Stakeholders who were interested in contributing during an online group interview
  • A sound plan that would solicit information vital to helping us understand our audiences diverse views and build a framework for the upcoming 2-day planning retreat

These three components and the process used to conduct our successful online focus groups are further explained in the second part of this two-part series.

Other articles in this series:

Online Focus Groups – Using ZOOM Technology to Gather Perspectives: Part 2

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