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5 Steps for Successful Focus Groups

As a marketer, you may have heard or even organized focus groups in the past. Focus groups can be an invaluable tool when gathering qualitative research for your business and exploring the forces that motivate consumer behavior. Like any other marketing research tool, focus groups have their limitations and their usability depends on the current stage of the marketing research process. Focus groups are most helpful in the early exploratory stages of research and their usefulness diminishes in later stages when businesses are looking for quantitative data to inform their strategy. If you are currently organizing a focus group, there are several steps you should follow to ensure that your groups are as fructiferous as possible.  


Step 1: Set clear objectives and plan accordingly


If you don’t have research objectives, you won’t ask the proper questions and your focus groups could be a waste of time. Good focus groups take planning, a clear understanding of what you want to uncover and internal agreement within company stakeholders. You want to make sure that business executives are aligned with your objectives to prevent possible surprises or disappointments when key insights are revealed.


It is crucial you provide a general discussion guide for your moderator that highlights the topics he or she must cover and how the discussion should flow. Include the main questions you want answered and mention whether or not certain stimuli or concepts will be used during the interview.  The guide should provide a general direction that is connected to your research goals; however, you should allow for flexibility and exploration during these sessions. After all, you may end up uncovering an insight that completely shifts the direction of your research and the focus group discussion should adapt accordingly.


Step 2: Prescreen participants


The most effective focus groups have around 6-10 participants and 3-8 total groups are conducted within each category. It is generally better to overrecruit than to underrecruit; hence, confirm at least 12 to 15 participants even if you just end up interviewing 8 attendees.  It is not uncommon for confirmed participants to skip the session or to appear withdrawn. For that reason, it is advisable to have options for the actual focus group.


Make sure you prescreen your participants before the day of the interview. The goal is to select qualified respondents that are open and willing to share relevant insights regarding the product or service at hand. It is a good general rule to keep homogeneity within groups and heterogeneity across groups. Prescreening is essential to ensure that this homogeneity.


Step 3: Select a skilled moderator


Even though your moderator will go into the focus group with a prepared list of questions and objectives, they should be skilled to help guide the conversation as new insights emerge. This is easier said than done. The moderator should help participants feel comfortable within the group and probe quieter members. It is not uncommon for certain people to take the lead in the conversation and sway other’s thoughts (also called group think). Skilled moderators are aware of group think and ask questions that get to the true thoughts and considerations of participants.


Good moderators should keep questions short and simple, avoid swaying members with their own biases and ask open ended questions that are not too challenging. The focus group should feel like a relaxed and open conversation and not a dry or intimidating interrogation.


Step 4: Choose appropriate company participants


In most focus groups, participants are separated from company attendees by a one-way mirror. Company officials can observe the entirety of the focus group without intimidating or affecting responses as participants cannot see members behind the mirror.  Focus groups can be a powerful tool as they provide first-hand information that business officials may not believe otherwise. It is very different to read a focus group insight than to experience it live and this is more likely to result in action from business executives. Observers should take detailed notes that will be useful when developing follow-up questions and analyzing insights from the focus groups.


Step 5: Analyze your content!


Focus groups are only useful if the ideas and insights presented are uncovered, analyzed and implemented into strategy. Unlike surveys and other quantitative data, analyzing focus group insights can be a long an arduous process. When analyzing the data, consider your original project objectives, provide a discussion overview and highlight the key themes that appeared in the conversation. Pay special attention to the types of words and verbatim that was used by participants. Lastly, it can be useful to use multiple judges when analyzing data to allow for reliable results.


Organizing a focus group may appear like an intimidating task. However, if your arm yourself with a solid set of objectives, strong planning and select the right participants, you are likely to succeed. Use the five steps mentioned above to guide your process and you will be on your way to a successful focus group.

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