Large organizations, including corporations, academic institutions, and government agencies, have recruited focus groups for decades to help them gain insight into the wants, needs, and behaviour of the public. For businesses, it’s useful to ascertain what current and potential customers and clients are looking for, and the focus group can be a cost-effective and highly revelatory source of information.
Consider the following points when you’re planning to recruit focus groups, so that you can separate the signal from the noise and ultimately derive useful data from the sessions.
The overall composition of the groups should accurately reflect your target demographic.
While this principle seems like common sense, its importance is difficult to overstate. A series of focus groups whose composition substantially differs from that of the target demographic won’t necessarily yield helpful data.
What age are your prospective clients or customers? Gender? Marital circumstances? Ethnicity, or mix of ethnicities? What language(s) do they speak? Where and in what circumstances do they live?
The better you can form a mental picture of your customer/client base before you begin recruitment, the more informative your focus group sessions are likely to be.
Stay on track.
One the of purposes of a focus group is to enable participants to share their own thoughts and feelings in an open, accepting environment, and in relative spontaneity. But whenever you gather strangers or acquaintances together and encourage them to converse spontaneously, the discussion is likely to wander off topic. This is where the skill set of a competent moderator becomes essential.
Attributes you should look for in a moderator include patience, firmness, articulacy, strong organization skills, the ability to appear neutral and impartial over the course of the discussion, and ideally some credible previous experience in the field. A moderator will also occasionally need to call on participants who haven’t said anything in a while, to encourage their input.
Would Goldilocks approve of the size of your group?
A focus group that is too small will tend to be stilted and fail to generate rich discussion. On the other hand, when the group is overly large, it will tend to segment into several smaller cliques, or a core group will form that excludes participants on the periphery.
Ideally, the scale of your group should be six to 10—not too big, not too small, but just the right size to facilitate an inclusive, respectful, productive exchange of ideas.
Ask the right questions.
To design effective questions for a focus group, you must begin by posing one to yourself: What exactly do you want to know? Until you can narrow down what you’re looking for, you’ll find it difficult to design questions that are specific enough to meet your needs.
You’ll also want to limit the number of questions to a manageable level. A good rule of thumb is that the number of questions (except for clarifying queries that the moderator may inject once in a while) should be roughly equal to the number of participants.
One of the main advantages of a focus group over a survey is the opportunity for participants to modify their views during the discussion. It’s common for a focus group participant to end the session with an opinion significantly different from the one s/he started with.
Conduct at least three or four unique group sessions.
This is likely the minimum you’ll require in order to generate valid, applicable results.
Each session should last anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Beyond that point, group productivity tends to stall, and you’ll probably have covered all of your questions anyway.
You’ll know when you’ve reached the “saturation point”.
When new focus group sessions aren’t generating many new ideas, you’ve probably retrieved about as much data as you can reasonably expect from the focus group endeavour. It’s time to wrap up and analyze what you’ve collected.