Business, Politics, & Society

How to Run a Successful Focus Group

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 21, 2019 • 5 min read

Focus groups are a key component of modern market research. Unlike quantitative survey methods, focus groups are a form of qualitative research that gives organizations the opportunity to gain nuanced feedback from a representative segment of a target audience. Whether you’re developing a new product or marketing strategy or are trying to gain insights from potential customers, the use of focus groups is a research method that can provide valuable information.

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What Is a Focus Group?

A focus group is a representative sample of your target audience—a small group who have volunteered to answer questions or provide feedback in a moderated setting. Moderated is a key word here, since the focus group participants will be led by a trained moderator who will ask questions, elicit feedback, and generally guide the focus group discussion.

What Is the Purpose of Focus Group Research?

Focus groups are one of the more tried-and-true methods for gathering qualitative data. A good focus group can elicit nuanced, complex responses from participants. A good moderator in a face-to-face setting can stimulate the group of people to offer new thoughts or insights that they wouldn’t otherwise reach.

Modern market research comes in many forms. While focus group research is qualitative, quantitative marketing research typically takes the form of questionnaires, scales, or surveys and can be delivered online or in-person. These types of surveys typically rely on tightly focused questions that can be answered numerically. If you’ve ever been asked to rate your experience at a restaurant, website, or the DMV on a scale of one to five, you’ve taken just such a survey.

While quantitative surveys can be useful in many settings, there’s still value in gathering qualitative data. This is especially true when your focus group questions can’t easily be framed numerically. For instance, if you’re trying to understand the potential pain points faced by your target demographic, you may want to allow them to respond in an open-ended way.

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How to Run a Focus Group

To be successful, a focus group needs to be run professionally and thoughtfully. That means you’ll need to plan ahead to make sure you have the right questions, the right environment, and the right moderator. Before you even begin soliciting people to join your focus group, you’ll want to:

  • Choose a single topic for your group discussion. It’s called a focus group for a reason. Your goal is to get nuanced, valuable feedback on one thing—whether it’s a new product, a new strategy, or a new service. Remember, a focus group is not a meeting. The point is to elicit useful, honest opinions, not reach consensus or evangelize for your brand or organization.
  • Carefully choose your questions or prompts. Keeping your single topic in mind, you’ll want to develop a set of open-ended questions. Questions that can be answered with a single word tend to shut down discussion. Typically, you’ll want to begin with more general questions to get your participants thinking in a broad way about the topic before you dive into more specific questions. It’s also good to frame your initial questions positively.
  • Choose your target audience. As with your focus group discussion topic, you’ll want to define your target audience narrowly. Broad categories like “millennials” or “homeowners” are unlikely to yield valuable insights. Make sure you’re targeting specific groups of people with particular characteristics or needs. Rather than “millennials,” think in terms like “women aged 25-34 who live in urban centers and drive to work.”
  • Choose an appropriate venue. The point is to get your participants to feel comfortable and open up, so make sure you’ve chosen someplace comfortable and private for your focus group. You can also host an online focus group, in which discussion is conducted via video conferencing software. When it comes to recording, it’s usually better to rely on a combination of notetaking and audio recording, as video recorders or one-way mirrors may make participants uncomfortable.
  • Make sure participants have filled out consent forms. Before the actual discussion begins, it’s important for you to clearly and succinctly explain the purpose of the study, articulate ground rules, and pass out consent forms for participants to sign.
  • Create a welcoming and supportive atmosphere. People tend to be more open if they know at least a little bit about the other people in the room. Even if you’ve prepared nametags in advance, make sure everyone has a chance to introduce themselves. An icebreaker question also be a good way to get people talking before the discussion begins in earnest. Providing refreshments can also set a welcoming tone.
  • Guide the discussion so that all voices are being heard. The facilitator’s job is to lead the discussion without letting the conversation get sidetracked or overwhelmed by one or two participants. Start with a prepared question, and be prepared to ask follow-up questions like “Could you say more about that?” or “Can you give everyone an example of what you’re describing?” while making eye contact. If you feel like the conversation is starting to lag, change the topic and pull from one of your prepared questions. The facilitator should also avoid asking leading questions that might push participants to provide specific, desirable answers.
  • Don’t let the group run too long. An hour and a half is more than enough time for most focus groups. Pay attention to the body language of the participants—if they seem bored or fidgety, it’s probably time to wrap up. Be clear about how much time you’ll expect from participants and don’t keep them longer than you said you would.
  • Provide opportunities for feedback. Be sure to thank your participants and make sure they have a chance to submit anonymous feedback, especially if the focus group didn’t go as you expected. Make sure they also have your contact information in case they want to provide any additional feedback after the group adjourns.
  • Debrief. If the focus group was recorded, create a transcript of the discussion. If not, prepare detailed notes based on what was said. If there was a dedicated notetaker along with the facilitator, they should compare notes to make sure that all the key points are covered.

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