Are you trying to build meaningful relationships with community members as you conduct community engagement for a project? Are you looking to gather feedback from groups you might not usually hear from or people underrepresented at planning events? Want to back up qualitative data with statements or quotes directly from community members? Focus groups—during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual focus groups—might be the engagement tool for you.
Using virtual focus groups serves a dual purpose: to collect qualitative data and as a catalyst for building community interaction. Virtual focus groups allow planners, municipal staff, and others leading community engagement activities to collect insight, input, and feedback from stakeholders in a particular interest group. They allow us to dig into topics with a specific population and ask follow-up questions on a collaborative virtual platform.
Virtual focus groups are suitable for adapting to a public health emergency like the COVID 19 pandemic. This method can help collect qualitative data in a meaningful and engaging way that complies with social distancing measures. It is important to note that virtual focus groups can be used after the pandemic has subsided: they can also help mitigate accessibility issues connected to mobility, transportation, or need for childcare.
Ideally, a focus group should last between 45 minutes and 90 minutes. A typical format might include introductions, a short ice breaker question, brief background information, open dialogue prompted by questions from moderators, and a closing with next steps outlined.
Our tips for approaching virtual focus groups:
- Plan to hold the virtual focus group on videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet.
- Leverage or build relationships for virtual focus group recruitment so that you can reach the most diverse and captive audience.
- Connect with municipal partners, schools, or community-based organizations to help address any digital divide issues that your stakeholders might be dealing with. These organizations might be able to leverage existing relationships to help stakeholders access the internet, use new software, and get access to devices.
- Designate specific roles for staff who will help facilitate the virtual focus group, such as a moderator, someone to monitor the chat on video conferencing platform, and a note taker.
- Consider using a virtual whiteboard like Jamboard during the focus group to collect sticky notes ideas and to allow participants to organize their thoughts.
- Keep the size of your focus group under 10 participants to allow stakeholders to have enough time and opportunity to share.
- Communicate ground rules, the overall objectives, and structure of the focus group to participants.
- Sharpen your facilitation skills to be a strong virtual moderator for your focus group.
- Design focus group questions collectively with your colleagues or other researchers in order to capture the most important information.
- Revise focus group questions to improve the qualitative information you collect based on the stakeholder you are interviewing.
Researchers can sometimes forget to give residents and stakeholders the time and space to tell their own stories, to elaborate on their own thinking, and to be genuine about ideas, data, and interventions. Virtual focus groups can help researchers learn more details about people’s lived experiences, allowing residents and stakeholders to think about a topic in a collaborative format, examine ideas holistically and collectively, and build on the answers of other participants.
During a virtual focus group, facilitators can ask pointed questions on topics that relate to their study area or to the lived experiences of key stakeholders, allowing the study to incorporate real-world intricacies. This understanding can end up impacting policies, programs, and social and physical structures. Virtual focus groups can help planners, researchers, and leaders understand gaps and opportunities in a way that literature and quantitative data can sometimes miss or fail to completely unpack.
We want to hear how you are utilizing virtual focus groups! Together, we can learn prepare for a new normal of community engagement, research, and community planning. Let us know what is working for you so we can build our practice together: email firstname.lastname@example.org.