Focus groups. Some love them, others hate them. To me, if someone claims that they never conduct focus groups for their products or services then (i) they don’t like talking about it (to appear ‘cool’ and ‘innovative’ by pretending that they don’t really conduct focus groups), or (ii) they did hold focus groups but did it unofficially, therefore it’s not recorded as part of the research activities, or (iii) they failed at focus grouping and don’t want to talk about it!
Whether you agree or disagree about the idea of using focus groups, I’ve listed what I know below from my experience with focus groups.
I’ve found focus groups to be valuable in my assignments, even when the focus groups were not formal. Everyone’s experience is different and so I hope you find the explanations and ideas useful and that they help you with your next focus group exercise. Like with everything else, you have to decide for yourself on what tools to use to achieve your goals, and if to use traditional and non-traditional approaches.
What a focus group is
A focus group works best when:
- It’s not used to try and measure your market, but instead used to understand it (for example, wants, desires, attitudes and intentions).
- Inclusion or exclusion criteria are established up-front to avoid recruiting participant who are not at all interested in the topic, company, product or service.
- The moderator has past experience. However, to gain experience, one must do their first focus group, right?
- More than enough participants are invited, in case of no-shows.
- It’s not too small or too big (six to 12 sounds adequate).
- It’s welcoming so participants are free to speak.
- Its format is open and free-flowing.
- It lasts between 45 and 90 minutes.
- The facilitator has a well-structured agenda.
- The important questions are carefully prepared in advance.
- Questions are clear, short, open-ended, engaging and exploratory.
- Participants are not bombarded with too many questions (perhaps 8 is ideal, 10 is perfect but 12 is the maximum).
- Comments are not guided.
- Participants have never met before.
What a focus group isn’t
A focus group is not going give you the answer to ‘what to do’ or ‘which product to launch’. It also shouldn’t be expected to be a quicker, easier and cheaper way to do research. It certainly should NOT become:
- An open debate where participants argue over their views or whose views are right or wrong.
- A discussion where participants offer advise or support (like group therapy).
- A session for making decisions or resolve any issues between participants.
- A place to explore solutions to problems even if it’s related to the idea, product or service.
- A meeting to collaborate on a project.
- A consultancy opportunity.
- A sales pitch.
- A session to collect evidence for legal action.
- An session to teach or educate.
When to use focus groups
Use focus groups when you want to understand
- Decision making
- Needs in the market that are unmet by your own or your competitors
- Whether the company’s assumptions are correct
- What could be preventing people from using the products or services
- What people think of the ideas you have about the product or service
- How people would react to it when it’s launched
- Whether a particular change should occur.
EXAMPLE: A focus group of new mums meets to discuss a new magazine for migrant mums. Mums share their views on current magazines, and on what this new magazine could report on to fill the gap.
Two issues I’ve faced with focus groups
There are two main issues that I’ve faced with focus groups. But first let me be clear that I’m not for or against focus groups. My belief is you can be good or bad at anything, and you can be good or bad at using focus groups as a tool. So, just because it didn’t work well for one company or client, it doesn’t mean you should steer clear of focus groups.
The first is with the participants. Usually when you send a mass broadcast to invite people to participate, you need to mention what the focus group is about. You might do a mini survey first with the invitation to qualify the prospective participants. This means that they already know the topic and they will accept your invitation based on their level of interest in the topic. In other words, you end up with a focused niche group. This can be a good thing but also bad because you might end up with a group of people who share the same views. If you’re after variety, then perhaps find a way to mix the respondents or say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to some of them when you notice you are getting too many of the same.
The second issue is with organising a focus group. If you only have a short window of opportunity to conduct research, it could be a pain to find people to participate.This brings in the question of whether to find a different method of getting the information you need. Do your research on the various ways you can gather the information that you need, and definitely spend some time reading case studies from others about their experience with case studies. They should provide enough Dos and Don’ts and you’ll have a much better idea before making the decision.
Library image by Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly.
Have you ever been part of a focus group? Or have you organised one for an assignment or client? Share your story below.
What’s this focus group you speak of? Part I