It’s a strange time for us all. And while we may not be able to conduct business as usual, it is a time when we can continue to learn, plan, and build skills to help us adapt in the future. For those of us working with new food and beverage products, virtual focus groups have become our best friend, particularly for evaluating new concepts and soliciting sensory feedback on product samples. While virtual groups are definitely not a direct translation of the in-person kind, they have fantastic upsides if you know how to work them properly for new product concepts and proto-cepts.
Here’s how to begin creating a successful virtual experience:
Select a Reliable Platform.
There are plenty of ways to host a virtual focus group. You could go ‘low-tech’ and use a basic conference call, or you could partner with an organization that offers holistic services; everything from recruitment to cloud storage to transcription. Your budget will be a big determining factor here, but consider your timeline, level of technological know-how, and your project scope and goals. Depending on the number of participants and activities you’ll require, you may need a more full service solution.
While it may seem like most people are suddenly video conference savvy, don’t assume competence. Make sure you’re recruiting respondents who will be able to both appear on video and complete any pre-assigned tasks. Consider dedicating a portion of your screener to a brief video upload or survey response, to ensure all of your participants can navigate through any required technology and will bring both energy and valuable insights to groups.
While in-person focus groups can support a larger number of respondents, a virtual discussion is usually untenable with more than four respondents at a time. Both on phone or video, more than four respondents makes it difficult to understand audio, and results in too much stopping and starting to get points across. Additionally, body language doesn’t translate nearly as well on screen, so for a moderator to communicate effectively, they’ll need to rely on more distinctive cues with respondents.
Use an Experienced Moderator.
There is absolutely a certain nuance involved in leading virtual groups. While charisma and strong communication skills are always desirable in a moderator, these qualities are paramount when navigating virtual discussion. Not only will the moderator be directing the conversation, but likely they will be displaying virtual boards, typing public notes, or playing clips for participants. To create a seamless virtual focus group, work with a moderator who’s had experience working in video discussions.
Assigning participants ‘homework’ to be completed before the first focus group is helpful from all angles. It gets respondents ‘in the zone’ and gives them a chance to familiarize themselves with both the product and technology. Creating and reviewing pre-work allows marketers to fine tune questions before the focus groups and preview the respondents. It also provides time to iron out any tasting or technology glitches before the groups happen.
If it’s in your budget, we highly recommend requiring user-generated video as pre-work, particularly when sampling or preparing proto-cept products. Video allows respondents to capture the prep and cook process and, when tasting samples, to record facial expressions and first responses. These can then be edited and clipped for use in the actual focus groups. There are a number of apps that make the capture and comment process seamless – easy for both the respondent to do and the viewer to watch.
One particularly valuable piece of pre-work is the survey. Correctly executed, surveys will gather data that might be missed during discussion. They give respondents the chance to share their preliminary opinions without being swayed by other participants. Answering surveys also helps respondents streamline their thoughts and login to the virtual group more prepared for discussion. Many virtual focus group solutions provide the option of programming surveys directly into their system, so respondents don’t have to login to another third party to complete the task.
Use the Groups as a Share Out and Build Session.
Once your respondents have completed their pre-work, and you have the survey results and video clips ready to go, the groups become a venue for shared commentary on their prior observations. In a virtual environment, sharing and discussing their findings is a more manageable way to go than trying to solicit live-time responses to product concepts and sampling.
Don’t Try and Conduct a Traditional Brainstorm.
As exciting as it is to watch a good brainstorm session, the traditional approach does not translate to virtual. The energy and excitement of a strong in-person brainstorm promotes further creativity and share out, but when participants in a virtual group are all speaking enthusiastically at the same time, no one will hear anything and a cheerful chaos may ensue.
The world of virtual focus groups offers amazing potential and space for gathering insight for innovation, but don’t expect tried and true in-person methods to work right off the bat. Rather, embrace the opportunity to use new techniques and activities to accomplish your research goals.