Focus Group Best Practices

August 6, 2008

A focus group is a controlled group interview of a target audience demographic. The interview is often led by a facilitator who covers a set series of questions or topics. Benefits of focus group sessions include: increased customer satisfaction & brand perceptions, and informing product development decisions.

Focus groups are a key component to an effective market research program. Generating qualitative feedback in this medium can be more insightful than standardized surveys.

Focus Group Use Cases

There are many reasons why organizations select the focus group medium to collaborate with their customers and prospects. Typically, it is to listen to “voice-of-the-customer” and guide strategic planning or product management decisions.

Following are a few of the key reasons for using focus groups:

  • Need to collect data, evaluate services, or test new ideas
  • To better understand opinions, beliefs, and attitudes
  • To review and test the assumptions of target audiences
  • Identify gaps between different stakeholder groups
  • To encourage discussion about a particular topic
  • To learn more about a specific topic or business issue
  • To build rapport with a customer base or new market

Focus Group Best Practices

Following are best practices for establishing focus groups:

  • Plan, Plan, Plan:
    • Create a clear schedule and agenda
    • Provide a comfortable setting including refreshments
    • Lay concise ground rules for the meeting
    • Select the right participants for your objectives
    • Record sessions if possible by video camera
  • Actively Manage the Recruiting Process:
    • Ensure you have the right people, not just those who are willing to participate in a focus group exercise
    • Don’t prejudge participants on physical appearance
    • Membership should be limited to 12 people but should include no less than 6 participants
    • Keep special needs in mind for participants with disabilities or other requirements for attendance
  • Bring Objectivity and Expertise to the Session
    • Select a experienced facilitator to promote discussion
    • Facilitator must provide objective conclusions based on the research conducted, without regard for the client interests. Often it is best to hire a third-party market research firm to help increase objectivity.
  • Quick Delivery of Report and Diligent Follow Up
    • Make sure conclusions are made in a timely manner and that participants are aware of the results.

Being an Effective Facilitator

  1. Keep your Goals in Mind: at all times throughout the session, ensure you are working toward project goals.
  2. Conduct a Formal Introduction: introduce each participant of the group and do an “ice-breaker” early on.
  3. Record the Session: ensure participants know the session is being recorded to comply with privacy laws.
  4. Follow the Script: focus groups can get off-track very quickly; stick to your agenda and maintain your focus.
  5. Be Very Clear: make sure questions are worded carefully and that words are properly enunciated to ensure clear understanding and accurate responses.
  6. Paraphrase your Understanding of participant’s answers so they can be properly understood and documented. Leave no room for misinterpretation, but be careful not to make implications for participants.
  7. Promote Equal Participation: among group members to ensure you are not conducting a single interview.
  8. Close the Session Properly: let participants know they will receive a report, and thank them for their time.

Action Plan

  1. Define the Purpose, Goals, & Objectives: it is critical that you develop a clear purpose statement so you can elicit the best information and ask the right questions.
  2. Establish a Timeline: planning should be done well in advance and the length of the session should be known by all parties involved. Develop a very specific agenda.
  3. Identify Participants: it is important to determine the number of participants required to conduct a thorough evaluation. The homogeneity/heterogeneity of participants should also be evaluated and names & contact information should be secured well in advance.
  4. Choose the Location: take into account seating and equipment requirements. Arrange refreshments. The location should convenient and comfortable for participants to encourage active participation.
  5. Invite Participants: send invitations via email, direct mail, or phone appointment, and monitor confirmations.
  6. Develop Questions: select 4 or 5 questions that relate to the purpose and that will address your major objectives. Questions should be open-ended and should move from general to more specific. Questions should be tested before being used in a live setting.
  7. Generate a Script: this will ensure your focus group stays on time and remains consistent, especially if you are conducting a number of sessions in sequence.
  8. Select a Facilitator: a good facilitator will keep the group on track, make sure all participants are heard, and will be able to deal with outspoken members. Strongly consider a market research firm or consultant.
  9. Conduct the Focus Group: make sure to follow the script and timeline. It is also important to be well prepared: recording devices, equipment, pens, paper, clock, name tags, etc., should be arranged in advance.
  10. Summarize Conclusions: document the key findings from the session, including perceptions of your organization and products, or other critical feedback.
  11. Write a Report: create a formal report including background, purpose, session details, results, and conclusions. Present to your Senior Management team.

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