A focus group can give you more detailed information and opinions than a survey, but skilled moderation will make it go more smoothly. Start preparing your topic and questions before you begin recruiting, so you can target demographics or communities with relevant opinions.
Planning a Focus Group
Choose one clear purpose. This is an opportunity to learn the nuanced opinions of clients, potential customers, staff members or a community. Ideally, you’ll only be talking to one of these groups per focus group. They’ll be expressing opinions on one topic, which should be kept to a single product or issue. There’s a reason it’s called a focus group.
Narrow down your target audience. Are you researching how your product is received among adolescents? What age range specifically? Do they have specific interests, hobbies, or spending habits? The more specific you can get this, the better you’ll be able to guide your recruitment and find useful opinions.
If your target audience includes members of a specialized profession, such as doctors, don’t try to combine them with other demographics. They will be most likely to speak freely around people from the same background.
Consider running a control group. If you have the resources to run two focus groups, consider running one focus group with participants from your target demographic, and one audience from the broader pool of potential customers or community members. This second “control group” helps you separate the unique opinions of the target demographic from opinions that are more widely shared.
Avoid using the focus group for other purposes. Focus groups are less effective when the facilitators or clients try to move beyond the original scope of the project. You may need to correct the participants in your focus group about some of these misapprehensions:
A focus group is not a meeting. You are not trying to achieve consensus or come up with a solution.
A focus group is not a public relations opportunity. Don’t go out of your way to present your organization in a good light.
A focus group is not a way to collect statistical data; the sample size is too small and the data is qualitative.
Find a second facilitator (optional). It’s often helpful to have an assistant facilitator quietly observing and encouraging wider participation, while you run the group by asking questions.
No one else should be present unless they have a clear role, such as managing snacks and sign-in sheets. Extra eyes watching can make participants nervous.
Choose a comfortable venue and recording method. Find a private area where participants will feel relaxed and comfortable. Video cameras or one-way observation mirrors are often used for market research, but they are not appropriate for focus groups covering sensitive or stigmatized topics. Use an audio recorder instead if you are concerned about the effect of observation on participant comfort.
Prepare questions. Design the questions to encourage participants to open up and talk about their opinions in depth. Avoid yes-or-no questions, since people are more likely to respond “yes” to please you. Instead, use open-ended questions like “What do you think of this product?” or questions that describe both choices, such as “Do you think the color of this product should be changed, or kept the same?”
Avoid technical terms and jargon.
Prepare visual content (optional). Photos, videos, or visual presentations can help keep the attention of the participants. They may also be useful as examples of the behavior you’re researching, for participants to react to and give opinions on. In this case, make sure the photos and videos you show are an accurate representation of that behavior.
Always come up with a contingency plan in case of technological failure. For instance, print handouts, or come up with alternate questions that don’t rely on images.
Practice with staff members (optional). If you want to refine your technique before you run the real focus group, run a mock session using a few members in the organization as participants. Use the steps in the section on running the group to learn which skills you need to practice.
Try to find staff that don’t have direct experience with product development, for a slightly more realistic experience.
Plan to recruit about eight to ten people. This is large enough to get a diversity of opinions, but small enough that you can encourage individual participation. Smaller focus groups are generally unhelpful, and larger groups require an experienced facilitator to keep them on track. If you are interested in a representative sample of a demographic, a survey is a better option than a focus group.
Write your advertisements to whittle down potential applicants. Use clearly worded announcements and an introductory questionnaire to make the requirements, date, and time as obvious as possible. It may be a good idea to include the question “Have you been in a focus group before?” People who often participate in focus groups tend to dominate the conversation, and may not be a good choice.
Use targeted advertising. Advertise your focus group in a method that is most appropriate to you target group. There are many options available to you: Use the organization’s social networking presence.
For community issues, talk about your project with workers at community organizations and ask them to pass on emails or envelopes to their members.
Post posters and keep brochures in your office or where your clients or target audience will see them.
Send out emails or letters directly to your clients.
Offer incentives. Offer “goodie bags,” money, or at least free food and drink. Incentives are a major reason for people to join focus groups, and the participants should be compensated for providing valuable information.
Running the Focus Group
Have the participants introduce themselves. People are typically more comfortable sharing opinions if they know a little bit about the other people in the group, even if it’s just their names. This is especially true for focus groups on controversial community issues, which should have each participant make their role in the community clear.
Set up a table at the entrance to the venue with blank name tags for participants to fill in and wear, as well as a registration where participants can optionally write their name and email address. If possible, have an assistant sit at the table and greet people as they walk in.
Announce the purpose of the meeting. Prepare an introduction that concisely explains the reason for the group to make. Don’t assume people are at all familiar with the topic at hand, or how a focus group functions. Explain that this is a brainstorming session, for sharing as many detailed opinions as possible.
Ask questions to guide the discussion. Use one of your prepared questions to kick off the discussion. Stick with the topic until you have achieved good responses, before moving on to the next. Use additional, unprepared questions to ask for more detail if the participants are giving brief answers. Encourage people to expand on their responses by asking questions such as “What do you think is the cause of that?” or “Are there any factors that would change your opinion?”
Stay neutral. Don’t insert your personal opinion into questions, or let the participants know your views on the topic. Avoid leading questions like “Don’t you think it would be better if…?”
Record responses on a whiteboard or flip chart. This can help participants build off each other’s ideas. Avoid changing the participants’ words, or you may not accurately record what they are saying. If you must summarize, ask whether you have accurately recorded the point.
Prevent an individual from dominating the conversation. If one participant talks much more than the others, it’s your job to politely put a stop to it. The best tactic is typically to encourage other people to speak up, with questions such as “Does anyone else have a different perspective?” or by asking each participant the question directly, in turn.
If this doesn’t work, break people up into smaller groups in order for them to discuss one question. Have each smaller group present to the whole focus group, with the larger group adding additional discussion.
Tamp down arguments. Explain that you’re not trying to reach consensus, and that more opinions lead to more helpful data. If participants are still heated or argumentative, change topic to the next question.
End the meeting. End the meeting at the scheduled time. Adjourn by summarizing the useful results of the focus group, casting the focus group in a good light. Thank everyone for contributing.
Provide opportunities for feedback and review. Give the participants a chance to provide feedback, using an anonymous system if the focus group didn’t go smoothly, or if the participants are your coworkers. You as the facilitator can also review the event to better prepare the organization for the next one.
Check all technical equipment in advance, and have a contingency plan in case of technological failure.
Start with the easiest and simplest topic possible and build in complexity from there.
Avoid asking people “why do you think that?” as they may misinterpret you to be attacking their point. Instead, say “would you like to expand on that point?” or “could you go over your reasoning in detail?”
Focus group members may bring up false information or offensive opinions. Only correct them if the information is misleading to the question you’re discussing, and do so as gently as possible.
Things You’ll Need
signs pointing the direction of the venue
flip chart with paper and markers to record ideas
blank adhesive name tags with markers to fill out
optional: data projector, laptop and extension cords
optional: photos and videos to discuss
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Sources and Citations
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