• Dr. Sharon Livingston

Ten Tips for Engaging Participants in Video Focus Groups

In a previous article, I spoke about the benefits of doing focus groups on video conference instead of in person. There are a number of great outcomes as a function of the online forum as I mentioned.

But to make this happen you have to set the ground rules for the “front room” participants.

One of the biggest challenges of video conferenced focus groups is that participants often see their home as a place to kickback and be comfortable. They often fail to recognize that they’ve entered a professional environment in which appropriate codes of conduct are expected.

Connecting from home, they can easily become lax in their involvement and fall into patterns of behavior they would consider inappropriate in a brick-and-mortar setting. For example, people don’t put their feet up on the conference table in an in-person meeting.

When I first started doing my own community service COVID groups to learn about how people were handling the changes: the fears, the confinement, the regulations, isolation and loneliness, work, vaccines, and then brainstorming potential solutions, I set up my own Zoom groups.

In the past, I had used Focus Vision when travel wasn’t possible, but these were not funded groups, so I had to do it myself. It was quite the experiment and I learned what to expect – good and not so great – and what to avoid.

Here’s what you may need to watch out for and what to do for a successful video conferenced group. I’m telling you these in the order of what I found most surprising or annoying to least.


1.Wearing respectable clothes is NOT an option, preferably the same kind of outfit you would wear to a business or social meeting. In one of the first groups I conducted, a man showed up bare chested at best. Really?! It shocked me and I responded to problem solve vs. address him directly or kick him off. [I was always taught to avoid shaming people.] I quickly shared my screen with a blank word doc explaining it was for taking notes, but it also covered his window.

He was the only one who ever appeared in his birthday suit, but it reminded me that I had to set the stage for proper attire – appropriate, respectful dress and reasonably coiffed hair for an in-person meeting like that we wear going to work or church.

2.They must connect through a stationary computer in a quiet room with adequate lighting.

Did you ever run a meeting with someone via their cell phone or little iPad? They wave it around unknowingly, get up and walk around. The effect on others is dizzying, roiling to the stomach and most importantly a distraction from the task.

Make sure the camera is focused on your face and not your midsection. You’d think that would be obvious, but noisy machines in the background are disrupting and crying children disturb everyone. It’s critical to have a peaceful quiet space. Be sure childcare needs are taken care of ahead of time.

3.Tell them to connect 10 minutes ahead of the designated hour and commit to the full time. Keep the camera on throughout. It’s insulting and damaging to group process to have someone leave early. Suggest using the rest room before the group so they can attend without having to get up. Be sure family members are prepared to permit privacy. 4.In the same spirit, use of cell phones or other devices during the meeting are prohibited. We want people to participate as much as they would if we were in the same room with them. We want their full attention.

5.Unless it’s a part of the discussion, it’s recommended to avoid eating during the group. Beverages, as long as they’re non-alcoholic are permitted. Not only is eating a little rude, but most people don’t look great on camera while they’re chewing. Did you ever see yourself? I once inadvertently videoed myself before a meeting started and got to see what I looked like. Not doing that again.

6. Chatting /texting is only allowed with the moderator, not other people in the group. Sometimes, very important insights start with a comment to the moderator that can then be brought into the group. But, while there are exceptions to the rule, side conversations with other group members are not part of the agenda. They derail the group and make it harder to reign people in for the task at hand.

7. All homework must be completed and submitted no less than 3 days before the group event. It’s important to see their work ahead of time, in case they need to add to it or change it or we want to replace them with another participant.

8. Payment for participation is contingent on doing the assignments as required and thoroughly following all the previous rules mentioned in this article. They must also commit to staying and being engaged for the whole session. It’s amazing how money talks!

9. For the first ten minutes, keep alternative respondents alert and ready to join. Even though you’ve done a good job at recruiting, you may want to bring in someone who is more appropriate. You can’t always tell until they’re in the group. It’s best to have a silent partner on board who you can text and who will take care of that for you. Although I’ve had to do it very infrequently, it’s far easier to remove someone from an online group that an in-person venue. They don’t have to be told they’ve “received a phone call” to leave the meeting. Of course, it’s always best to protect the group integrity, but we’ve all had times when we’ve had to remove someone because of behavior.

10. Ideally, spend a few minutes with each person ahead of time with some simple questions. Check on their computer, camera and mike. Show them how to come on board. See the room they’ll be connecting from. See if they have any questions. That will give you a sense of their ability to share, a bit about their personality and a chance to assess if they have any speech issues including strong accents that might be hard to understand.

What other problems and solutions have you encountered? I’d love to hear. or 603 505 5000.

And just a couple more ideas that you know from in person groups:

Smaller is better. Ideally online, talk to 4-6 people, but no more than 8.

And it’s better to avoid having just one man in a group of all women, or just one woman in an otherwise all men’s group.

To your success,

Doc Sharon