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Hacking Facebook Groups for Research

When you can’t find the perfect research app, adapt an existing discussion tool for your next study

Anja Dinhopl
Sep 6, 2017 · 6 min read

Recently, as I was preparing for a research study, I was having trouble figuring out the right app for the job. One app offered easy uploading of multi-media content in the moment, but didn’t provide much opportunity for rich discussion. Another had robust discussion capabilities but lacked available media content. And on it went.

Convinced that I would need to make concessions someplace, I put together a pro-and-con list for my team to have them help me decide. As I got ready to post the list in a Facebook Group — yes, at Facebook, we use Facebook to communicate with each other — it finally hit me: I could just use Facebook Groups for the project. Here’s how it went and what I learned.

Keeping participants engaged

I’m not going to tell you to use Facebook Groups for all your research projects. But for this one — a diary study of how a new Facebook photo-sharing feature fit into the lives of Facebook users in South America — it worked surprisingly well. I was able to ask participants questions throughout the day to really get at their photo-sharing habits at various times. Because they already had Facebook installed on their phones and received notifications of my post, participants were immediately engaged and responsive.

Groups also made for lively discussion. When I asked participants to share the most interesting photo they’d seen their friends post with the feature, they could simply add a photo in the comments. Threaded answers enabled them to discuss one another’s photos. For another question, I used Facebook’s poll-creating feature in the group to make it easy to choose an answer. The study lasted two weeks, and engagement didn’t drop off. Among participants who completed the study, it even intensified as participants got to know each other.

Why to consider Groups

Since this photo-sharing study, I’ve successfully used Facebook Groups for several other research projects. It’s not the perfect tool for every study (more on that later), but it’s well worth considering. Here are my top 7 reasons why:

  1. High participant engagement: If your participant sample consists of Facebook users, participants don’t have to download a separate app or log in to a separate service in order to stay in touch with the researcher. When they can use a service they already use throughout their day, participants are more likely to stay engaged for the duration of the research.
  2. Flexibility for participants: Participants can check in and respond to research questions on their own time, participate in research activities (like uploading photos) when it’s most convenient and appropriate, and use a variety of devices.
  3. Flexibility for researchers: You can use different post formats to engage participants depending on the research goal. You can ask questions to spark discussion — by using polls, for example — or ask participants to upload photos, post videos, provide written answers, etc.
  4. Thick data: Most participants are already familiar with the social etiquette of engaging with others on Facebook. Their responses are more likely to reflect how they’re feeling and less likely to be scripted than on other services. This is especially important for research questions that require participant discussions.
  5. Lots of levers for discussion: Participants can easily upload and import content from other areas of Facebook, such as newspaper articles, to help them answer researcher questions. Similarly, you can share articles or public content to spark conversation.
  6. Prolonged engagement: You can engage with participants over almost any period of time, from just a few days to indefinitely.
  7. Compelling findings: Participants’ own statements/posts can easily be used in presentations to stakeholders, often making findings much more compelling and immediate.

A few concerns

Though Groups is an effective tool for a lot of studies, it’s far from a universal solution. Here are the main potential drawbacks to consider.

  1. Participants are not anonymous: Participants use their real first and last names on Facebook. Each participant and the researcher will know one another’s real identities, which can be an especially significant problem for sensitive topics and discussions.
  2. Engagement varies with size: Particularly with large groups, it’s difficult to accurately track and ensure participant engagement. If you’re interested in in-depth understanding, limit your group size to the maximum number of participants you can engage with in order to encourage continued participation.
  3. Groupthink: Invariably, some participants will be more active and vocal than others, potentially influencing the rest of the group.
  4. Ethical concerns: Researchers must make sure that participants are fully informed about the role of the researcher, particularly for research with an existing Facebook Group.

How to set up a Facebook Group for research

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  1. Create a group on Facebook: Creating a group is easy using these steps. Give your group a fun name that’s easy for participants to remember and clearly delineates the group from other activities on Facebook. Make sure you choose a fun cover photo.
  2. Provide a group description: The group description needs to outline the research objectives, expected involvement of participants, FAQ, and preferred method of how they may reach out to the researcher. The description will not only be the first thing participants see, but also a constantly available reference. Make sure the content is relevant for the duration of the study.
  3. Set up a URL and email address: You need to give your group a unique URL and email address. These are important. Since you can currently invite only friends to a group, you’ll have to send the URL to participants for them to join the research group. The URL should be descriptive, but you’ll probably have to adjust it, since most common names are taken. Adding “researchgroup” to either the start or end of the URL nearly always works.
  4. Set up controls and privacy levels: I set the privacy of the group to secret, so only research participants can find the group. I set membership approvals to “Any member can add members, but an admin or moderator must approve them.”, so no new members can be added to the research group. Depending on your research design, you may set posting permissions to allow members to post, let them post but require admin approval, or only allow admins to post.
  5. Invite participants: Send participants the URL and ask them to join by a specific time and date so the research can start on time. Let them know to contact you should they run into any trouble. The “# of members” feature makes it easy for you to see whether everyone successfully gained access to the group.
  6. Create a welcome post: Immediately after sending the invites, create a welcome post. Think of it as an icebreaker — your welcome post will set the tone for the types of interactions you’re looking for. I suggest making it resemble a “normal” Facebook group to make participants feel at ease. A fun environment will encourage continued engagement.
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I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by how well Facebook Groups has fulfilled my research needs. I hope this guide has provided you with enough information to give it a try as well. I’d love to hear about your own experiences with using Facebook Groups for research. Let me know how it went in the comments, or ask me any questions. Happy researching!

Author: Anja Dinhopl, Researcher at Facebook

Illustrator: Drew Bardana

For another research hack, see Lauren Vilder’s “Conducting Diary Studies via Messenger” article for how she adapted Facebook Messenger for a diary study.

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