Conducting a successful focus group is both an art and a science. Think about cooking. Just because you have a recipe, doesn’t mean you’ll have a successful outcome. Good cooks know how to account and respond to variables. The same holds true for moderators and qualitative research consultants.
Focus groups are effective for probing the ‘why’ and ‘how’ that drives consumer opinions and behaviors. Moderators seek a balance between structure and free-form: too much structure, and you limit opportunities for uncovering deeper insights; too little structure, and you end up with a rambling conversation that also limits insights.
Let’s explore the framework that helps moderators find the ‘sweet spot’ for getting the most out of a focus group.
1. Bigger isn’t better. Focus groups that have between six to ten participants work best. Staying within this range allows all participants to engage and gives the moderator a chance to probe responses that yield richer insights.
2. Watch the time! Focus groups that exceed two hours have diminishing returns, and frustrate the participants. Keeping the focus group to between 1 ½ and two hours is the ideal. Scheduling a quick 10 to 15-minute break at the midway point refreshes participants and keeps disruptions to a minimum.
3. Spend time on writing your discussion guide. Experienced market researchers don’t ask random questions. They spend time creating a discussion guide that flows and asks open-ended questions. Depending on the topic of the focus group, moderators will use a variety of techniques to keep the conversation flowing. Anything from visualization exercises, to free-association exercises, to case histories are fair game for getting participants to think outside the box. Don’t forget to allow time at the beginning of the focus group to set ground rules about participation, give an overview of the study and its purpose, explain privacy and confidentiality protocols, and tell participants when they can expect a break.
4. Host your focus group in a neutral facility. A big no-no is hosting a focus group in spaces that are associated with the company sponsoring the study. Participant responses may be biased if they see company logos or overt associations with the company commissioning the study. Selecting a neutral location that is geographically convenient, and has easy parking, are all considerations that will help ensure success. Of course, if you’re hosting an online focus group, you don’t need to think about this step at all!
5. Recruiting a representative sample of participants helps avoid ‘group think.’ A screening guide is useful for finding people who fulfill a range of ideal characteristics. Ideally, your focus group will be comprised of a representative sample of the target audience. You don’t want a group that is too homogenous, as it yields responses that are too similar. On the other hand, a group that is too diverse makes it a challenge to control the discussion.
6. Keep it cool. Seasoned moderators set the tone early on and make sure that participants feel relaxed and safe to be forthcoming in their responses. Remember that you’re bringing a group of strangers together, so start your session with some ice-breaker exercises to help your group feel comfortable. Don’t forget to remind participants that there are no right or wrong answers and that the group is a safe space to be honest, even if the feedback is negative.
7. Focus groups are governed by privacy and confidentiality protocols. Focus groups, no matter what the topic, is governed by the ethical protocols of any social science methods. All participants need to sign a consent form that details the scope and intent of the study, and how the information shared will be managed. For safety and security reasons, don’t use full names in focus groups, only first names. Remind participants that they are also responsible for respecting the privacy and confidentiality of others. If you’re recording the focus group session, make sure that participants are made aware of this fact.
If the above steps seem daunting, don’t despair. There are many nationwide market research firms and recruiting agencies that can conduct a market research study on your behalf. In fact, it’s best to go with a professional firm that does nothing but qualitative or quantitative market research. You’ll get the best results in a timely matter.