Focus Groups Reimagined for the Digital Age

By The SHSMD Team posted 04-11-2018 12:18

The much-maligned focus group has undergone a facelift. Newer iterations of the focus group include the online focus group and the asynchronous, bulletin board-style focus group. (More about asynchronous focus groups later in this post.) Both methodologies use online platforms to access participant insights. Online focus groups typically use a web conferencing tool like GoToWebinar or WebEx, allowing hospitals or health systems to recruit focus group participants from far and wide to participate from the convenience of their home or office. This is a particularly attractive option for rural health systems with large service areas. It is also a more cost-effective solution—eliminating food, facility, and travel costs typically associated with face-to-face focus groups.

How does an online focus group work?
The recruiting process for online focus groups is no different than for in-person focus groups. We recruit participants in the same way we always have, reward participants with a stipend, set a specific meeting time, send out meeting reminders to participants, prepare a moderator’s guide, and convene at the appointed hour. Some moderators prefer to have fewer participants because it takes more effort to manage the conversation and draw out responses from participants when they are connecting by way of an online platform. Clients and consultants can observe online focus groups as they take place and offer suggestions to the moderator in real time.

One of the valuable aspects of focus groups is the group brainstorming dynamic that takes place. Frankly, the moderator of an online focus group must be more agile and better prepared to encourage this type of interaction. Anyone who has ever participated in a large conference call understands the challenges that can arise with several people trying to speak at once.

The online focus group is still limited in its ability to attract busy professionals who simply can’t fit into our predetermined schedule. This points to the need to a qualitative methodology or tool that doesn’t require all of the participants to be in the same place at the same time. That’s where the latest iteration of the focus group comes into play: the asynchronous, bulletin board-style focus group.

The Asynchronous Focus Group
When looking to tap into insights of busy professionals, particularly hard-to-reach physicians and C-level executives, it is most helpful to have a tool that accommodates the participant’s busy schedule and hectic lifestyle.

One of the newer research methodologies organizations are using to access the opinions of physicians and executives is the asynchronous, bulletin board-style focus group. A bulletin board focus group (BBFG) is an asynchronous, threaded discussion typically involving dozens of participants per group over extended periods of time. In that way it varies significantly from more traditional online focus groups. What health care organizations have found attractive about this type of research is it allows you to give physicians a window of time (perhaps two days) where they can log in to the system and share their insights—any time of day or night; it’s a matter of whatever works with their schedule. They can access the system from a laptop, tablet, or other mobile device; whichever is most convenient. After the first round of interaction is complete, the marketing team can take a day to review the participants’ responses, brainstorm, post follow-up questions, and have the participants return for another 30-minute session later in the week. Again, this will be at their convenience over a two-day period. Health care organizations are finding that this methodology makes it easier for physicians to participate in market research.

As you might expect, the bulletin board is growing in use because it offers flexible and unique ways to gather information that would be difficult to collect using traditional research methods. The convenience of being able to log in at any time makes this form of qualitative research ideal for reaching busy individuals (doctors) or for studies across multiple time zones. The American Board of Pediatrics recently used asynchronous focus groups to test messaging with its diplomates (board-certified pediatricians) located in geographies across the country.

How the Asynchronous Focus Group Works
The participants log into the secure platform at a specific URL that has been provided to them, entering their user name and password. They then answer questions that are posted and monitored by a moderator who can also prompt respondents to expand on their responses or provide clarification. Any stimuli that can be presented on the internet or through media (ads, photos, narrative, web pages, PowerPoint presentations, images, audio, and video files) can be presented through asynchronous focus groups. Responses can be required of the respondent prior to allowing them to see others’ responses; this helps to reduce bias and is an improvement over traditional focus groups, where participants tend to influence each other with their responses and strongly expressed opinions. With the asynchronous groups, we capture the response of the respondent before he or she sees how others in the group responded.

This methodology is ideal for conducting benefit testing and message testing with referring physicians. There are tools within the platform that you can use to have the respondents rank attributes in order of importance. You can also have them use a highlighting tool to note portions of messages that they find to be most compelling, least compelling, or confusing. The software will automatically convert the responses into easy-to-read graphs and charts — even word clouds. This helps a great deal with reporting.

In Closing
Great marketing builds upon insights gathered from the target audience(s). That’s why listening is such an important skill for marketers to embrace and master. The next time you identify an audience from whom you would like to gain insights or feedback but find them challenging to reach, consider the asynchronous, bulletin board-style focus group. It’s up to us as marketers to design and offer up methodologies that fit within the life of the target audience(s), rather than make them conform to what works for us. The advent of online and asynchronous focus groups gives us the opportunity to offer a convenient platform for busy individuals to use to share their feedback and inform our marketing.

By Dan Dunlop | Posted April 11, 2018
SHSMD Digital Engagement Task Force Co-Chair
Twitter: @DanDunlop