Three Tips for Conducting Successful Focus Groups

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There are many methodologies utilized in market research, with focus groups arguably being the most well-known. Focus groups are popular amongst market researchers because if well conducted and led by an experienced moderator, they offer up many rich insights into consumers’ behaviors.  Just because researchers rely on focus groups for market research, doesn’t mean they are simple or easy to assemble. A lot of background planning must first be done to ensure a successful outcome.

Larger companies with dedicated marketing and product teams realize that outsourcing focus groups to specialty market research firms is money well spent, but for small or startup companies without large budgets, this may not be possible. Successful focus groups require a lot of background work and will yield the best responses if conducted by a neutral party. However, if there is no way around conducting a focus group using internal resources, here are three tips to consider.

Tip #1: Hold a focus group in a neutral space

If the goal of your focus group is to solicit feedback on your brand and you think you can host a focus group at your office, stop right there! Participant responses are likely to be biased if they know upfront the name of the company. You want participants to speak freely and not be swayed by pre-conceived notions they may have about a brand or product, which is why it is best to conduct focus groups in a neutral setting. If it is necessary to mention which brand or product the focus group is being conducted for, then reserve this revelation for the very end of a focus group, so as not to bias the discussions.

Some options for neutral spaces are co-working spaces or hotel conference rooms. Wherever you end up hosting your focus group, keep your brand or product out of sight. Don’t wear clothing with company logos and when communicating with participants prior to the groups use a non-company email, if possible. You’ll likely save money if you use an outside qualitative recruiting company to coordinate the recruiting and scheduling logistics, as this is a time-intensive part of setting up focus groups.

Tip #2: Develop a well-planned discussion guide

A well thought out discussion guide is the foundation of your focus group. The key word is “guide” and not “script”. You don’t want to feel locked in by your discussion guide because conversations will sometimes take unexpected turns that you want to allow for.  The design of the guide needs to be carefully thought through with your team. Before you can create your discussion guide, first outline your goals for the project. What do you hope to learn and solve? Where are the opportunities? Where are the gaps? After you’ve sketched out your priorities you can then structure the guide with these questions in mind.

Generally, you can expect to have time for three to four sections in a two-hour group, depending on how complex the topic is, of course. Write your questions out, going from general to specific, and keep them open-ended. Leave time for follow-up questions. Once you’ve developed the discussion guide, memorize it. It’s not uncommon for participants to bring up points that come later in your guide. Rather than jumping all around, be prepared to follow their lead, and know where you should come back to.

Moderating focus groups can be intimidating and you may consider hiring a professional qualitative research moderator. A good moderator is like a conductor. They are there to keep order and to bring out the best from each participant.

Tip #3: Capture your data for later scrutiny

Our third tip is very important. Don’t conduct a focus group without capturing what is discussed. The amount of information that is shared in focus groups is not easily captured by a note-taker, as there are numerous side conversations that happen. Additionally, a note-taker can’t record body language or expressions. The best way to scrutinize data at a later time is to audio and video record the focus group sessions. A word of caution, however; a 2-hour focus group can easily yield up to 50-plus pages of transcript, and if you’re conducting multiple focus groups, you’ll be inundated by a lot of material. Once the focus groups are complete, you’ll want to budget one to two full weeks to properly synthesize and analyze the findings into a report for your team.

It is possible to conduct focus groups internally and on a lower budget, but make sure you dedicate a team of two or three senior-level employees to the study for three to four weeks. Another note of caution if you don’t outsource focus groups to a neutral market research agency: your team will be essentially be wearing myopic “glasses” looking through the lens of their experiences with your brand, product, and processes. While you’ll get better outcomes by hiring a neutral, third-party agency to conduct your focus groups, we realize it’s not always an option. With the above tips, you’ll be better prepared to tackle internally led focus groups.

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