Online focus groups using web chat

Online focus groups using web chat

Real-time web chats were used to gather views and experiences from consumers in a series of online focus groups in Germany.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses similar challenges for social researchers as it does for community engagement practitioners, as several research methods require communication and interaction between the researcher and participants.

This is a summary. You can read the full article in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology.

What they did

Cordula Hinkes, a researcher from the Thuenen Institute of Market Analysis in Germany, used web chat focus group discussions to better understand consumer attitudes about palm oil and whether the effect of its production on deforestation is a relevant factor for consumer choices.

Cordula recruited participants from an online panel of a market research provider to form groups of people with different characteristics, such as age, socio-economic status, and geographic location. The participants received a small financial incentive for participation.

Web conferencing software Adobe Connect was used to carry out 4 online focus groups, with between 10 and 13 participants in each. Discussions took place in real time and lasted around 60 to 90 minutes. The moderator used a semi-structured approach, posting questions and inviting the participants to type their responses.

What worked well

An advantage of using online focus groups is that people can join from a number of locations – in this case from all over Germany – which would have been challenging in a face-to-face setting. Sharing views via an online platform also allows people who face financial or physical barriers to participate, such as people on low incomes, disabled people, older people, and people living in remote and rural areas. 

The use of pseudonyms on the online platform also allowed for sensitive topics to be discussed, which may be more difficult in face-to-face settings or on platforms that reveal participants' identities.

A further advantage in using an online web chat platform was that text from participants was immediately available after the focus group discussion. This saves both time and money. However, one issue to be aware of is that participants will also have access to the text. 


On the downside, the web chat was difficult to manage due to the real-time nature of the discussion process. At times multiple conversations were taking place simultaneously. Because all the participants were online they could also search online for answers to questions, to compensate for their lack of knowledge on the subject. This makes the method unsuitable if seeking to understand participants' prior knowledge.

Due to a lack of visual and verbal cues, it was difficult to know if participants were finished answering a question or whether they wished to comment further. This made it difficult for the researcher to make decisions about when to progress to the next question.

The researcher observed that some participants were slower at typing than others, resulting in the discussion moving on without them at times. However, a suggestion to overcome this issue was identified in the available literature: to conduct a screening of participants to separate slow and fast writers into different groups.

The researcher noted that the platform used occasionally requires the use of an add-on which could cause issues for the host and participants.

Key learning points

  • Cost-efficient and convenient
  • The anonymity of the platform can allow discussion of sensitive topics
  • Real-time discussion can be a challenge
  • Not very suitable for assessing participants' prior knowledge – relevant for other methods where participants have access to the internet


Cordula Hinkes (2020) "Key aspects to consider when conducting synchronous text-based online focus groups – a research note", International Journal of Social Research Methodology

DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2020.1801277

Photo credit: Ekaterina Bolovtsova on Pexels

Last Updated: 19 April 2023