Don’t Over-Structure Your Next Focus Group

Get the information you need to make decisions

The key to useful research is to focus on gathering the information you need to make decisions. When does it make the most sense to use focus groups as a research tool and how do you get the most out of them?

First, focus groups fall under the umbrella of qualitative applied research instruments, which emphasize finding solutions to practical problems. They are not, however, ideal instruments to ‘measure’ something because you simply don’t get enough data to extrapolate findings with precision. Rather, focus groups are ideal for either understanding broad themes or identifying subtle nuances that are hard to measure in any context.

For example, when you need to understand what motivates a particular audience to make a purchase, they are the perfect vehicle to discuss reactions and learn insights. And if you segment your participants into focus groups with specific attributes (e.g. person over 65, parents, millennials), you can look for broad differential (or similar) patterns that emerge between groups. Given this, focus groups typically take place at the start of the research when you might need to widen your aperture and understand a broad issue more thoroughly. 

Key Tip: Focus groups are valuable when your goal is to explore and understand. Do this at the start. And then, if needed, use findings to inform how you might employ quantitative research tools to measure, predict, or estimate the behavior you are most interested in. As example, follow up your focus group with a survey to get a statistically valid measurement for an attitude, behavior, or preference revealed during the focus group discussions.

To get the most out of your focus groups, keep them informal and casual. You want people to be comfortable, open, provide candid feedback, and engage each other in a dialog. You aren’t just tossing out questions and collecting responses. The group interaction helps feed the conversation in ways you might not have planned. It’s an iterative process! In this way, focus groups differ from 1:1 interviews (1:1 interviews are also a great way to learn similar information, especially for groups that are difficult to gather in a single location or in a short time period). For example, I hosted my last focus group at local brewery. We had a great evening over some beers, and in exchange, I learned a lot about the new product launch for my client.

Key Tip: Pick a place that is comfortable, quiet, and convenient for your target audience. Relax and join your participants for an interesting and enlightening discussion.  However don’t ask leading questions or make leading comments that reveal your own attitudes, position, or behavior. Do avoid time-sucking introductions or awkward ice breakers.  Instead, allow for a short ‘gathering period’ when people can introduce themselves to each other. Then, start the conversation with a clear and direct purpose followed by an easy question to get them involved. I usually just ask, “Has anyone participated in a focus group before?”  This helps get the group talking early and makes it easy and natural. Then, just let it flow from there.

Preparation is important. Even though you want everything to be casual on the outside, the whole experience needs to be well planned, so that things can ebb and flow without taking the whole session off course. The best discussion guides are more of an outline of topics, as opposed to every possible question. Participants should be encouraged to engage and ask each other questions. Session facilitators need to be willing to adapt and be flexible, should the conversation deviate (in a way that is acceptable to the end objectives). For example, participants may lead the discussion naturally to a topic area planned later in your discussion guide. Rather than try to steer them back to your order, facilitators need to be able to adjust the flow “on the fly.”

Most importantly, all of the research topics in the discussion need to be framed around the key decision areas for the client. In my recent focus group at the brewery, the client needed to know what motivated purchase decisions and how people discovered new consumer products. Understanding these points was key to their decision making, and we focused the research around understanding the nuances that revealed consumer behaviors and buying motivations. And because the sessions were so engaging, we naturally picked up much more useful information for the client.

Key tip: Before you hold your focus group, identify 2-3 major topics that are important to your decision making. Focus the session around going deep into those. Encourage the group to engage each other. Give the session a formal ‘end,’ but offer to stay and keep talking. You will be surprised of all the great feedback you continue to get after this false ending.

When running a focus group, there are some potential pitfalls to avoid. If you are a small business owner and considering holding a focus group with customers, you need to be aware of the bias you may bring to the conversation. They may not want to tell you directly what they are thinking. While I would never shy from an owner interacting from clients, do be aware of this. Making things comfortable and creating an atmosphere of trust become that much more important so they can give you honest feedback. And hiring a research facilitator can be a wise move to ensure the most objective feedback.

Other pitfalls that can derail your focus groups are “group think” and the “very opinionated participant.”  Again, a trained facilitator is invaluable to help navigate around these pitfalls.

Key Tip: If you can, invest in a research facilitator.

Focus groups are an excellent tool to deepen understanding of complex issues. When you plan and structure the sessions effectively, they are a relatively inexpensive yet invaluable way to gain the insight you need for strategic decision making.

1 thought on “Don’t Over-Structure Your Next Focus Group

  1. Sarah Mehalic Reply

    This is a great primer on the right way to use focus groups and how to use qualitative information! In my experience/opinion, this is why a trained facilitator is an absolute must–not just for steering the focus group itself, but for steering interpretation.

    Glad to see bias and owner influence called out as it can totally derail what is otherwise invaluable market insight. I have seen executives approach focus group sessions with preconceived ideas about what needs to happen or what their customers think, and then their confirmation bias derails the subsequent survey and the actionable insights.

    A facilitator who is trained to look for this and challenge the client vs. keep them happy can make all the difference!

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