Dos and Don’ts for a Positive Focus Group Experience
by Lynn Adelmund
Focus groups are often viewed as the most glamorous of market research activities, if that isn’t considered an oxymoron. But unless focus group projects are designed and executed well, your chance of learning anything of value is limited.
A focus group is, in essence, a discussion among members of a specific group (such as your readers) that focuses on a set of specific topics. The data resulting from these groups are qualitative in nature;meaning they are not statistically measurable. Focus groups are typically used to generate ideas, develop hypotheses, explore motivations and test reactions to concepts.
Focus groups do take a certain amount of planning time, money and effort to conduct. The most common mistakes happen when people try to cut corners:
Don’t conduct only one group. One of the main advantages of a focus group session is that participants can build off of and respond to comments from the other participants. By conducting multiple focus groups, you increase your chances of the truly interesting/insightful comments coming to light, as well as decrease your chances that participants in the group do not represent the opinions of the whole audience/readership.
Don’t try to save money by moderating yourself. Instead, hire a trained moderator. Two things happen if you don’t: First, if you are highly invested in the topic you are covering you can bias the responses just by your body language and your question phrasing. Secondly, you miss the opportunity to benefit from the skills, knowledge and insights of someone who does this professionally.
Don’t conduct these at an event because it’s convenient for you. Just because there is a conference, trade show or event where people from your organization are present doesn’t make this an ideal place to conduct a focus group.
Don’t dismiss participants’ ideas because they don’t agree with you. Go into the focus group sessions with an open mind. Comments that you don’t agree with are not necessarily wrong. If you go into it hoping to "prove yourself right" then you’re wasting money, time and a huge opportunity for improvement.
Don’t omit the quantitative survey follow-up. Focus groups should be used to explore the answers to questions of "how" and "why." But they won’t tell you "how much" (remember that qualitative research is typically not measurable). Before you make major decisions that affect your products and audiences, find out how much the focus group’s answers reflect your audience as a whole. The most common ways to do this are through online, telephone or mail surveys.
Now that you know some of the blunders that can sabotage a focus group project, here are some tips that will help you succeed:
- Do set purpose and objectives. Have clear objectives of what you need to find out, a clear purpose of why you need to find this out, and a clear action plan of what decisions will be made with these findings.
- Do screen for the right participants. Determine what types of people you want to include and screen out all others. Do you only want to include new readers, dropped subscribers, readers in certain demographics? Ensure you determine their qualifications before you even broach the subject of a focus group.
- Do tailor your discussion guide to your objectives. Limit your questions to your primary objectives. You can easily use up 90 minutes focusing on two or three primary topics.
- Do use a trained moderator. Make sure you use someone who is experienced and objective. They need to be able to listen attentively, ask rich follow-up questions, know when to deviate from the discussion guide, maintain control of the group, elicit responses from the more timid participants, watch for non-verbal cues and body language, and stay on schedule;all simultaneously.
- Do have verbatim transcriptions of the discussions. It costs a bit more, but is generally worth every penny. After the session is over, it is easy to remember the really articulate comments and strong opinions, but easy to forget some of the people who weren’t as outspoken.
- Do follow up with solid field research. Always follow up a purely qualitative study with quantitative research. To make informed decisions, it is critical you know the extent to which these focus group participants’ opinions reflect your whole readership/audience.
Lynn Adelmund is director, research for Penton Media.