Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: Health communication researchers are increasingly using virtual focus groups (VFGs)—such as online chat and video groups—as a qualitative research method. Theoretically, VFGs should offer several advantages, including greater geographic diversity, inclusion of hard-to-reach or low-prevalence populations, lower cost, and greater anonymity when discussing sensitive topics. However, no research has rigorously examined whether VFGs deliver these advantages or how VFGs compare with traditional in-person groups. The purpose of this study was to address these gaps in evidence by comparing three focus group modes—traditional, live chat, and video—on cost, recruitment, participant perceptions, and group logistics.
Methods: We conducted a series of six one-hour focus groups in August 2014 using traditional (n=2), video (n=2), and live chat (n=2) formats with individuals who had Type 2 diabetes (n=48 enrolled, n=39 completed). In planning the groups, we solicited bids from six virtual group platform vendors and four recruitment firms. We then selected one platform for each virtual group mode and a single firm to recruit participants across all modes. To minimize bias, the recruitment firm assigned a different recruiter to each mode, and these recruiters were blinded to recruitment efforts for the other modes/groups. We tracked enrollment daily during a two-week recruitment period with the goal of enrolling eight participants per group. A single moderator conducted all groups using the same semi-structured moderator guide, which focused on participants’ current and desired use of technology to communicate with healthcare providers. We conducted the groups at the same times of day (6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. EST) on Monday-Wednesday during a single week, and we held the traditional groups in Atlanta, GA. We video recorded all groups (except live chat), and we produced verbatim transcripts for all sessions. At the end of each group, we asked participants to complete a short exit survey about their experience in the study.
Results: VFGs offered no cost advantages over traditional groups. Although VFGs did not incur travel costs, they often had higher management fees and miscellaneous expenses (e.g., participant webcams). Recruitment timing did not differ by mode, but show rates were higher in traditional groups. VFG participants were more geographically diverse (albeit with significant clustering around major metropolitan areas) and more likely to be non-white, lower-educated, and less healthy. Internet usage was higher among VFG participants, although VFGs still reached light users. Satisfaction and comfort sharing information was high across all modes, but perceived confidentiality was slightly lower in VFGs. In terms burden, chat groups were easiest to join and required the least preparation.
Conclusions: VFGs offer potential advantages in terms of participant diversity and ability to reach less healthy populations. However, VFGs do not appear to cost less or offer greater confidentiality than traditional groups. Further research on VFG data quality and group dynamics is needed.
Implications for research and/or practice: Health communication professionals should consider VFGs as a tool for reaching hard-to-reach populations and increasing geographic diversity, but should not select VFGs for cost or confidentiality reasons alone.