Free and (not necessarily) easy

Editor's note: Kathy Carroll is principal of Carroll Insights, Stamford, Conn.

A Google+ Hangout is a free video-chat platform that allows up to 10 people to talk online face-to-face. Think of it as an online place to hang out with your friends or, in the case of focus group research, an online focus group room where you can meet with recruited focus group participants. Google+ Hangouts On Air up the ante by allowing you to create instant Webcasts (not so useful for the normally private focus group but see below for ways to get around this) and, more importantly, allow the moderator to record the online focus group for later (private) retrieval.

In other words, Google+ Hangouts On Air is a no-cost way to conduct and record a virtual focus group with up to 10 people in a video-chat environment where everyone can see everyone else. Google+ Hangouts On Air offer unique and cost-efficient opportunities for focus group research. As with any new platform, there is a learning curve. Reviewing some of the pros and cons and best practices may help you decide if this is the right methodology for your project.


Big cost savings. No focus room rental, no need for a physical place at all, no videoconferencing charges, no client or participant food costs, no equipment charges, no recording fees, no parking fees, no client travel costs, lower incentives since participants do not have to travel.

Convenience for the client and for the participants. Easy viewing by clients from the office or the comfort of home, no need to travel to the focus facility, no need to gather in designated places for expensive videoconferencing. Participants can participate from their homes, so no commuting to a focus facility, which means better show rates.

Geographic diversity. Participants can be drawn from every region across the country, as long as you keep in mind the time zone differences (e.g., 8 p.m. groups in New York are commute-time groups in California).

Almost full-size groups. Unlike other free video call platforms, Google+ Hangouts can accommodate 10 participants (nine participants plus the moderator = 10), so it’s possible to do a nearly full-size focus group.

Various client observation options. There are three different options for client observation:

  1. Clients can actively participate in the Hangout session as one of the 10 participants (either silently observing or actively voicing questions – and there is also a chat feature, which clients can use to send questions to the moderator). 
  2. Clients can watch the Hangout live on Google+ as long as they know where to find it. 
  3. Clients can watch a recorded video of the Hangout afterwards and this video can be made private so it is only available to these selected viewers.

Easy to moderate. Once the technical setup issues are addressed, the groups are easy to manage and Google+ Hangouts provide some useful features (e.g., mute capabilities, eject tools) that allow the moderator to control any problems in the group if necessary.

Good video and audio. While some experts suggest that all participants should be using a headset for the Google+ Hangout, audio is usually fine using the device mic and video is generally fine as well, although participants may need to be directed to move the camera or adjust the lighting in the room to better capture their image (e.g., for the best on-screen image, the light source should be in front of you, not in back of you).

Useful options available for screen sharing and showing videos. Google+ Hangouts offer features that allow for sharing materials, although obviously this can become a sensitive matter given the public/private issue (see the third con below).


Still need to use a recruiter, with probably no recruitment cost savings. There’s no savings on recruiting if you want traditional focus group recruiting. Even alternative-type recruiting (e.g., Craigslist or Facebook) will not be any cheaper if the recruit includes difficult/low-incidence specs (but very broad specs, e.g., consumers of a specific product, may be easily recruited from Facebook and probably at a considerably lower recruitment cost).

Sample restrictions. As with all online research, the sample is restricted to online participants, and in this case there are definite hardware requirements: a 2GHz dual-core processor or greater and also, for group video connectivity, Google suggests 1 mbps/2 mbps (up/down). But as Google itself notes, the bandwidth used by Hangouts is adaptive and will vary to provide the best experience for the conditions of the participants’ networks. FYI, including the following specification in the screener: “Do you have a computer with a camera and a microphone and a strong broadband Internet connection?” usually is sufficient to recruit participants who are easily able to participate in a Hangout.

Public vs. private. A Google+ Hangout On Air is recorded for future viewing, which is very helpful for both the client and the moderator. And as soon as the Hangout is over, the organizer (moderator) can make the Hangout private so that only people designated by the organizer have access to the video. But be aware that while the Hangout is being recorded, it will be available to the public, meaning that if people know how to get to the Hangout organizer's YouTube channel, they will be able to view the Hangout while it’s happening. However, as a Google Community Manager explains, “That being said, if you don’t advertise the Hangout On Air publicly, the chances of others randomly coming across it are drastically reduced.”

No immediate tech help available. If something goes wrong for one of your participants, it’s very hard to troubleshoot the problem while the focus group is getting started or, even worse, while the focus group is in session. Google provides lots of FAQs and online instructions but there’s no instant-messaging feature to help you fix a problem on the spot.

Camera control is egalitarian during the session for the participants but can lag. At the bottom of the screen, Google+ Hangouts provide small, live, individual camera shots of all of the participants in the Hangout that all the participants can see, as well as one larger camera shot of one of the participants on the main screen above the bottom individual shots. Using a very easy control function, each participant can determine whose image is on their main screen at any time during the session. Or, if the participants don’t want to assume control for themselves, each one can let the Hangout automatic camera control take over, which gives the screen to the person who is talking. There is a little camera lag when it’s automatic and there can be some quick back-and-forth shots if more than one person speaks at a time, but not in an excessively distracting way, and to some extent it does help control over-speaking in the group, since it is immediately obvious on screen that too many people are talking at once. The moderator/organizer controls the camera for the recorded video.

Time restrictions. Google+ Hangouts On Air have generous time limits (four hours of total broadcast time, with a check-in by the system at the 150-minute mark to make sure you’re still there) but from a useful research perspective it seems like a 60-minute or possibly 90-minute group would probably be best since the participants are each at home and therefore can be more easily distracted from the discussion.

Lots of technical changes all the time. Since Google+ Hangouts On Air is a relatively new platform, the requirements and setup steps seem to change frequently. Informative articles even just a few months old about using Google+ Hangouts On Air can already be out-of-date, so each new focus group will require vigilance in the setup procedures to make sure that the process has not changed since the last focus group.

Best practices for using Google+ Hangouts on Air for focus groups

Choosing participants with a Gmail account will make it more likely that they will not have problems getting on Google+. Or asking any participant who doesn’t have a Gmail account to set one up is also possible.

Participants have to accept the Google+ policies. When you join a Hangout On Air, you’ll see a message asking you to accept the Google+ user content and conduct policy. You’ll also see a message saying that the Hangout On Air you’re joining can be broadcast and recorded. So it’s a good idea to let the participants know beforehand during the screener that the session will be recorded and public for a short window, so that anyone with privacy concerns can opt-out during the recruitment process and not right before the focus group when they read the Google policy notice.

Before the Hangout session, send everyone a reminder e-mail to the address that you will be using to invite them into the Hangout. In the reminder e-mail, include the Google+ Plugin and ask them to install it immediately. It’s easy and very fast to install. While there’s conflicting information online about whether participants who are already Gmail account holders need the plugin, better to be safe than sorry when the focus group starts. For example:

Just a reminder that the videoconference is going to happen at 8:30 p.m. EST.

Please be online and on your Gmail around 8:15 p.m. EST.

You’ll receive an e-mail with an invitation to the Google+ Hangout and you’ll be able to click in to join.

Please make sure that you have the Google Hangout Plugin installed on your browser.

If you don’t, you can click this link to download the plugin:


Do a practice Hangout. Especially if it’s your first Google+ Hangout or if you’re generally risk-averse when it comes to business, you should consider doing a practice Hangout before you begin the actual focus group, just to make sure you can see and hear everyone. You can practice with each participant individually, which is probably easier for them since you can connect when it’s convenient for both you and them or you can ask all the participants to join in a quick mock Hangout at some point before the actual focus group is scheduled. Troubleshooting during the focus group, or even right before the focus group, is definitely something you want to avoid at all costs, since it will eat into your focus group time, not to mention your ability to be cool, calm and collected. Also, if a participant has trouble getting into the Hangout, their repeated trials to join can be very distracting to the other participants because an alert notice will pop up repeatedly announcing that so-and-so is trying to join the Hangout.

Start the Hangout early to get everyone in and set up, but you, the moderator, should not hit the Broadcast button (which records the session) until you are ready to begin the focus group, so that you don’t have all of the setup time on the client’s video of the session.

Assume everyone’s new to Hangouts. Explain how the Hangout works: camera control; speaking one at a time; when the moderator will direct questions; when questions will be thrown out to the group; if clients are participating in the group, etc., before the focus group begins (and also before you hit Broadcast).

Don’t forget to end the broadcast. And then watch for the alert: “Broadcast has been successfully terminated.” Also remind the participants that they each have to manually hang up by clicking on the telephone icon in the right-hand corner of the screen.

Make the video private immediately. When the Hangout is over, follow the links to your YouTube channel where the video is stored. The video takes a few minutes to upload but as soon as the video appears, use the Action tools to make it private. Once you do that, the video won’t appear on your channel, search results or playlists and will be invisible to other users. You will be able to share the video but no one who is not given specific instructions by you will be able to watch the video.

More to come

There will be more best practices to come, I’m sure, as more and more researchers begin using this method. Here are some other online articles from researchers and marketers who are writing about Google+ Hangouts:

“Leveraging Google+ as a qualitative research platform: case studies and best practices,” ARF Rethink 2013.

“5 examples of brands using Google Plus Hangouts,” by Amie

“Using Google Hangouts for interviews: a cautionary tale,” by Katrina Noelle