Five Essentials for Effective Focus Groups

Jul 23, 2019 - John Paff

This month, our team had the privilege of conducting a series of focus groups for a private, faith-based school in north-central Indiana. The focus groups were the first stage of a larger research project designed to help the school adapt to shifting demographic and economic trends in their community.

Our client recognized that, while their mission remained the same, some methods and messages might need to be adapted for recruiting students from outside its traditional base. Focus groups became a key strategy for identifying how our client could reach diverse populations and broaden its audience.

Focus groups can be extremely helpful. But you have to follow a few guidelines to get results you can trust.

Select focus group participants strategically

In our recent project, we identified four target audiences and planned a focus group for each. This strategy helped us explore what mattered most to each constituency. In another rebranding study, we divided focus-group participants into two sets; more extroverted talkers met together, while shyer introverts had their own group. That ensured everyone had an opportunity to be heard.

Keep groups small

In our experience, focus groups ideally should have an odd number of participants — no less than five and no more than eleven. Groups in this range are easier to keep on topic and on task.

Choose an experienced moderator

Group facilitators must have the skills to listen carefully while actively managing group dynamics. Moderators should remain neutral and avoid swaying the conversation in any direction. Moderators must be very knowledgeable about key issues facing the client, and should gently prod participants into candidly discussing those issues.

Record the conversation

For accuracy in reporting, always record focus groups. Openly discuss with participants how the recording will be used. Decide in advance who will be permitted to review the recordings — the researchers only or the client organization also — and disclose this decision to focus-group participants before the session begins.

Understand the limits

Focus groups help you investigate problems, explore ideas, and ask the right questions — but they don’t provide hard data. Focus groups reveal what participants think, not what entire target audiences think. Key issues can be identified through focus groups, but solutions should always be tested through more quantitative research methods, such as surveys.

Focus groups are an important step in market research, but they need to be managed properly. When used correctly, focus groups provide valuable information and insight.

Are you planning a market-research study? Let’s talk about how focus groups might benefit your project.