The Remote Focus Group: Tips for Observing (and Moderating) Digital Insights Sessions
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The Remote Focus Group: Tips for Observing (and Moderating) Digital Insights Sessions

April 6, 2020

Aviva Urkov

We’re vetting and optimizing our remote capabilities to keep the brands we work with ahead of the curve. Planning a remote focus group? Here’s what works, what doesn’t, and what to expect when conducting remote research.

We’re deeply passionate about in-person, in-context research — sometimes it’s the small things you observe up close that clarify the way ahead for a brand or experience. But what we’re learning in a COVID-19 world via remote focus groups is as powerful — if not more so — than groups conducted at a facility or out in the field. With this format, we have a unique chance to see a close-up, in-context view of our consumers. By losing the sterile environment of a focus group (white walls, one large table, and a room full of strangers observing you through glass), we can engage in rich conversations with consumers where they’re most comfortable — their own home.  

To run insight-rich focus groups online, we’ve been using a few different platforms — with Intervu and being two of our current favorites. As you prepare to moderate or observe a digital focus group, here are some of our tips for making sure it feels just as good — or better — than an IRL focus group. 

Tips for observing: Digital backroom? Same as the old backroom.

#1. Set expectations

The same rules apply — everyone, from the moderator to the backroom observers, needs to be on the same page. But there are some important differences in setting expectations for a remote focus group.

For instance, make sure your team is familiar with the platform before go-time. Provide everyone with step-by-step instructions to get set up and situated so the tech isn’t a distraction and they can focus on the conversation. Consider also providing a document that simplifies log-in, essential feature use, and communication options so everyone’s on the same page heading into groups.


  • Practice makes perfect: Set up a dry run with your focus group platform provider prior to your first group, to make sure everyone is comfortable logging in and using the software. Try to have a member of your provider’s tech or support team attend to answer any questions that come up. 
  • Leave no stakeholder behind: Give your team clear direction on how to log onto and get acclimated with the platform. Use screenshots and captions when possible to help explain. 
  • The future is here: Point out useful features that clients can utilize like a backroom chat box or the ability to time-stamp videos. No more knocking on the door and handing sticky notes to the moderator — from asking questions to capturing video clips, a lot is streamlined during digital focus groups.

#2. Over-communicate

With in-person focus groups, it’s easy to have side conversations in the backroom and start identifying key themes together. Online, it’s a bit tricker.

It’s crucial that you build-in prep and debrief time before, during, and after digital sessions. These team debriefs offer critical time to reflect on conversation, identify initial takeaways, and make tweaks to guide flow. It’s important to keep the same dialogue going for remote focus groups to maintain that sense of collaboration.


  • Schedule your debriefs: Set intentional 10-15 minute debrief meetings with stakeholders after each focus group to discuss and iterate. If you don’t, it’s way too easy for everyone to log off and disappear until the next group starts. Make sure everyone knows they need to stick around to debrief. 
  • Structure your “listen for” ahead of time: Share an observational worksheet with your team — make sure it spells out important things to listen for, which will aid in keeping debrief sessions productive. 
  • Manage the details: It’s also critical to maintain constant communication with recruiters and ensure participants are confirmed, have signed any necessary documentation, and can easily be contacted. We find that people are hungry to participate in groups now that human-to-human interaction is a bit of a rarity — and people have a lot to say. Even so, with so much going on in people’s personal lives it’s easy for them to forget to log on to join the group. Keep in close contact to avoid being ghosted by your participants.

#3. Roll with the (tech) punches

As with in-person focus groups, there will inevitably be small hurdles that come up — with remote groups, it’s just more likely your hiccups will be due to technical difficulties (don’t panic, you anticipated this!).

Remote focus group providers know these things happen and are there to help you troubleshoot. Reassure your stakeholders that small issues will pop up from time to time but that you’ll get them smoothed out as quickly as possible. It’s only a problem if you don’t manage expectations — ensure both stakeholders and participants aren’t surprised if something comes up, and that there are alternative ways to dial-in to the conversation if, for instance, your home wifi croaks. 


  • Follow a tech troubleshooting checklist: Do your homework — ask your focus group support team questions beforehand, so you can go in as prepared as possible. Here are some helpful questions to ask:

Who should I contact in case of a tech issue, and what’s the best way to contact them?

What are the most common tech issues customers experience, and how do we resolve those issues?

Is there a backup dial-in for those who have bandwidth or data issues?

Are there certain browsers the platform functions better on (Chrome vs. Safari)?

Will the platform work differently for those using a Mac vs a PC? If so, how?

Who’s responsible for getting participants set up and comfortable on the platform? Would it be possible to have them set up prior to the session? (Note: The last thing you want is for confusing platform UX or technical issues to cost you a participant). 

Tips for moderating: A great (remote) moderator is still worth their weight in gold.

#4. Lights, camera, moderate: 

We’ve become fond of saying that “if in-person research feels a bit like putting on live theater, then remote research is more like shooting a movie.” With remote focus groups, the moderator is both your director and lead actor. More than ever, they need to call the shots — guiding the conversation, managing who talks and when (lest folks just yell over each other), and ensuring the time is used to drill into territory that yields real, powerful insights. 

As a moderator, it’s important stakeholders and participants understand what to expect in a remote focus group setting. Participants may feel more comfortable off the bat joining from their own home (which is great!), but it’s important to deploy some tried and true techniques for making sure everyone is heard:


  • Children, please raise your hand: An “energetic” focus group is still possible without it sounding like a cacophonous cable news program. To limit cross-chatter and “over talking,” the moderator needs to set some rules. For instance, reiterate the importance of hand raising, waiting your turn, and trying not to talk over one another. 

Here’s an example of dialogue a moderator can use to get this message across in the introduction:

My client and I are excited to hear all of your ideas today, and I want to make sure each of you is heard! If we were having this conversation in-person, it would be easy to tell when someone wanted to start talking or when they were ending their thought by reading their body language. Since we can’t do that here, I need each of you to give me a quick hand raise in-camera to let me know you have something to add. That way, we can all hear each other out, and my colleagues and clients observing can follow along with our conversation. Sound good?”

  • Be (even more) assertive: A moderator’s role now, more than ever, is to protect the silent within the group. Sometimes you get a participant who has a LOT to say, at the expense of others’ participation. Be assertive — this kind of moderation should be more directive and less free flowing. Don’t be afraid to speak over participants to guide the conversation (“Mike, what were you going to say?”). 
  • Listen, pivot, and probe seamlessly: One benefit of a remote focus group is that backroom stakeholders can more easily communicate with the moderator. With our platforms, it’s easy to shoot them a message or encourage quick follow up. For remote groups, moderators need to keep their eyes on the backroom chat box to ensure they’re probing in the right places. 

How can we help? Rich insights, at your fingertips.

At Kelton, no matter the situation, we pride ourselves on moving quickly and thinking creatively to bring clients powerful research solutions — even through life’s uncertainties. Now, more than ever, it’s important for people to feel heard — and that we find ways to authentically listen harder than ever.

We’re all in this together. Like you, we’re adjusting our approach too. Tell us about your next project, and we’ll help you figure out how to tackle it from afar. 

Aviva Urkov

Associate Director, Experience Innovation & Design Research

As Associate Director, Experience Innovation & Design Research, Aviva helps clients build meaningful experiences, by understanding their customers' stories and translating them to actionable...

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