Using Focus Groups
Using Small Group Meetings to Collect Customer Views
Whatever sector you work in, you need to seek out customer feedback, so that you can develop products and services that fully meet people's needs.
Focus groups help you gather this feedback cost effectively. They can also give you a much deeper insight into customer thinking than can be gathered from questionnaires and surveys.
However, you can waste a lot of time and effort if you don't plan focus groups carefully. In this article, we'll look at how you can set up and run an effective focus group.
What Is a Focus Group?
A focus group is a market research meeting in which, typically, six to ten people are asked for their opinions, perceptions or attitudes about a product, service or idea. A moderator guides a discussion, asks focused questions, and draws out views from all of the participants.
However, focus groups are more than question-and-answer sessions. They can tell you what people think or feel about a topic or idea – and, importantly, why they feel this way – because you can ask follow-up questions, and you can analyze body language and other non-verbal cues.
Focus groups generate subjective information from a small number of people. As such, you shouldn't use them on their own to make risky or costly decisions – you also need to use quantitative data gathered from a wider portion of the market.
How to Conduct a Focus Group
Follow the steps below to set up and run an effective focus group.
Step 1: Identify Your Goal
Your first step is to zero in on the single topic, product, or idea that you want to focus on. This will help you to keep your planning – and your focus group session – on-topic.
Think about the following questions:
- What are you trying to learn?
- What information do you need?
- Who will use this information, and for what purpose?
Once you know what you want to learn from the focus group, come up with eight to ten questions that address your goal. Prepare open questions (ones that can't be answered with a yes or no) that will draw out people's thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
Step 2: Choose Your Moderator
Your choice of moderator directly affects your group's success.
Moderators should have a high degree of emotional intelligence. They need in-depth knowledge of the topic or product being discussed, and enough objectivity to keep their own opinion out of the discussion. They must also have excellent active listening skills, and be able to facilitate the group effectively.
Consider hiring a trained external moderator to get the best from your focus group.
You’ll also need an assistant moderator. This person will handle logistics, take notes, and monitor recording equipment during the session.
Step 3: Invite Participants
Recruit participants through channels used by your your target customers – such as websites, social media, local newspapers, or your organization's intranet. That way, you'll reach the widest group of potential participants, and you'll have a large selection of people to choose from.
You can also ask your contacts to nominate participants for your study. Ask well-connected business professionals or community members to suggest suitable candidates – make sure that you explain the purpose of your study, and the type of participants that you're looking for.
Remember, your focus group should consist of six to ten people, so, once you have a number of potential participants, you'll need to narrow this group down. It's usually best to invite more participants than you need, as it's likely that a fair proportion of them will be "no-shows."
When you invite participants, make sure that you tell them about the format that you'll use in advance. For example, let them know if you want to record their views on video.
A 1991 study found that money was a powerful incentive for focus group participants.
However, cash incentives are not always appropriate – for example, if your participants are employees of your organization.
Use your judgment as to whether an incentive is appropriate in your situation, and, if so, what the right kind of incentive is.
Think carefully about the composition of your focus group. Participants should be from your target market, and should be comfortable talking about the topic of discussion in front of others.
Be aware that people may feel uncomfortable discussing certain topics with people from different backgrounds, or where there is a power imbalance, and they may not share information fully as a result.
For example, imagine that you want to gather input from staff at a school. Teachers might not be completely honest if their principal or school board president is also present. In this case, you'd get more accurate feedback by holding separate focus groups.
Step 4: Conduct the Focus Group
If you're the moderator, or if you're present in the session, make sure that you set clear expectations as soon as the session begins. For example, it's important to ensure anonymity. Give out numbered labels, and ask everyone to address one another using numbers rather than names.
Additionally, make it clear that there are no right or wrong answers, and that anything said in the group will be confidential (you'll need to say who will be able to access the recordings of the session).
You should also let people know what kinds of language and behavior will be acceptable in the group, and give people the chance to leave if they're no longer comfortable with the expectations you've set out.
Once everyone is happy to proceed, you may want to use a short ice breaker to help participants relax.
Be aware of group dynamics as the discussion gets underway. For example, you may notice that one person is dominant, or that another doesn't contribute. Open up the discussion with a neutral and open question: for example, "What other views might people have on this topic?"
Be aware of your own body language, and that of others. For example, if you show signs of anxiety or boredom, it's likely that participants will pick up on these. Likewise, if one of your group appears nervous, do what you can to put them at ease, without disturbing the flow of the discussion.
Give people time to think before they answer a question, and rephrase it if there's no response. However, don't be afraid of silence: it can prompt "left field" ideas that, in turn, can generate highly productive discussions.
Online focus groups can help generate insight into issues that people may not be comfortable discussing face to face. They can also be cost-effective if your target market is dispersed, or in a remote location.
To run these groups, you can use online chat resources or web conferencing tools. Many market research companies also offer online focus group platforms.
However, remember that online focus groups won't allow you to gather nonverbal information.
Step 5: Analyze Data
If you didn't attend the session, talk to the moderator and any other staff present at the group first. Ask for their opinions and initial thoughts about the session. If they made an audio recording, ask them for a seating plan to illustrate where each person sat.
Next, go back to your original goal. What exactly are you looking for in this data? Keep this in mind as you read the transcript, listen to the audio, or watch the video.
You'll also want to examine these factors, if appropriate:
- Participants' familiarity with one another, and with the topic of discussion.
- Each person's body language when they asked a question or gave a response.
- Whether there were many similar responses, periods of silence, or indications that participants were confused.
At this stage, you might find that you have further questions to ask, so you may need to plan another focus group, or carry out more research.
In a focus group, people are asked for their opinion, perception, or attitude about a product, service, or idea. A moderator guides the discussion and aims to generate interaction between participants. You can then analyze this interaction, along with non-verbal information from the group.
Follow these steps for an effective focus group:
Step 1: Identify your goal.
Step 2: Choose your moderator.
Step 3: Invite participants.
Step 4: Conduct the focus group.
Step 5: Analyze data.
Focus groups can be cost effective, because you can potentially gather large amounts of information from one session. However, they should not be used on their own to make costly or risky decisions – quantitative information is also needed.