How To Conduct An Effective Focus Group

Whether you’re trying to raise public awareness, change behaviour, test new products and services, or gauge the strength of your brand, market research is a must – and focus groups are a great way to gather intelligence. Ideally these are organized and facilitated by professionals, but smaller organizations with a do-it-yourself budget can still benefit from this tool, if they proceed with caution.

1. Purpose. What is the most essential information you need, to make your business decision? What do you need to know that cannot be learned from secondary research or a review of best practices? What can you reasonably expect to cover in two hours of discussion? This is your opportunity to dig deep for unexpected insights, so resist the urge to cover too broad a territory.

2. Target audiences. Think about the sensitivities involved in discussing your topic. Will nurses speak freely about the chain of command if there are doctors in the room?  Will girls speak freely about sexual health if there are boys in the room?  Make sure you’re creating an environment where participants are comfortable sharing their opinions.

3. Timing. Honour your target audience’s schedule, not your own. Are they likely to be full-time employees? Schedule the meeting for 5 or 5:30 so they can go after work and still get home at a decent hour. Are they full-time homemakers? Meet during school hours so they’re home in time for the kids. Are they seniors? Schedule the group during the afternoon so they don’t have to drive at night. Consider asking your early recruits about the best time to meet, or holding two groups at two different times of day.

4. Incentives. Recognize that people are very reluctant to sacrifice two hours of their time (plus travel) to give you opinions about your products, services or cause. (When was the last time you attended a focus group or open house for someone else’s organization?) So you will have to offer an incentive, and you’ll have to make it a good one. Last year Redbird conducted a series of focus groups for a non-profit organization, and at the end of the sessions, participants were given the option to receive $50 cash, a $20 gift card, or donate their time to the organization. Out of over a hundred people, only 11 donated their time, and the rest overwhelmingly chose the cash.

5. Recruiting. Once you decide you’re willing to pay people to attend, you might think that recruiting will be easy: post a notice on Craigslist or Kijiji, and wait for the phone to ring. Not necessarily. Even though the number of people in a focus group does not constitute a statistically significant sample size, you still want your group to reflect a representative cross-section of your target audiences. So if, for example, you’re marketing medical devices to seniors, don’t limit your group to people who will see your posting online. Contact senior centres, churches, coffee shops or malls with bulletin boards. Radio stations (especially in smaller markets) and newspapers will often have a free community events listing. And don’t forget word of mouth and personal recruiting. It’s important that the participants not know you personally, however, or be too familiar with the subjects you’re investigating.

6. Logistics. Regardless of when you schedule the meeting, ensure that you have coffee, tea, water,and non-caffeinated beverages available, along with something to eat. Unless you stipulate that you’re providing a meal, most people will have eaten before they come or will be eating after they leave, so don’t order huge quantities. (Or have a plan to deal with leftovers.) When people come into the room, check their name off your registration list and have them sign a release allowing you to use their ideas and opinions, and giving you permission to record the session, if applicable. Include a note affirming that their image or recorded voice will not be used publically, nor will their name and personal information be shown alongside their opinions, or shared with third parties. At the end of the session, have them sign a receipt for the incentive.

7. Facilitating. There are two critical factors during the focus group that can make or break your results. The first is facilitator neutrality. A facilitator who reveals her own opinions, or indicates agreement or disagreement (however subtly) with someone’s comment, will skew the results. Many people subconsciously want to ‘please the teacher’, and a few subconsciously want to rebel, so it’s vital that the words, tone of voice, and facial expressions of the facilitator be equally warm, encouraging, and yet non-committal to all participants. This is easier said than done.  The second critical factor is group dynamics. Some people are natural leaders and will sway the opinions of the natural followers. Some people are life-of-the-party extroverts and will dominate the airwaves while the introverted wallflowers sit silently. A skilled facilitator must be firm but diplomatic in managing these types so as to gather everyone’s opinions. Consider asking people to jot their answers down for certain questions, before discussion begins.

8. Results. Focus groups can yield valuable insights into opinions and attitudes, generate innovative ideas, and reveal interesting areas for further exploration. But keep the results in perspective. Seven or eight people, no matter how carefully chosen and skillfully interviewed, do not constitute an infallible oracle. Use their opinions to supplement, not replace, the advice of your professionals, the experience of your staff, and your own common sense.

Sound like a lot of work? Contact Redbird for a quote on your next focus group.