Although there are many methodologies in market research, focus groups are the most well-known, and often, companies think they may need a focus group, even if another methodology would be a better fit for their type of research question. But whether it’s from the pop-culture references to focus groups, or because people in the general population are frequently recruited to participate in a group, they’re well-known, and seem relatively “simple,” on the surface, at least to assemble.
Companies with complete marketing and product teams understand that outsourcing focus groups to specialty market research firms is a wise move, but when companies are small, in startup stage, or don’t have a budget, they may attempt to conduct a focus group themselves. Since we are, in fact, in the business of focus groups, we understand how complex they are to do correctly, but we also are firm believers in the methodology, and we’d like to offer a few tips if your company is in the position of having to conduct a focus group using internal resources, versus relying on a vendor.
How to conduct a focus group, tip #1: Reserve a neutral space
If you are planning on hosting a focus group at your offices, and you anticipate getting any sort of feedback on your brand, stop right there. Even if you do end up mentioning your brand toward the end of the discussion (always stack that toward the end so you don’t have upfront bias in the discussion), the very presence of your office adds pressure to the participants; they may feel obligated to respond in a certain way, and if they don’t like your brand or aspects of your product, you’re setting them up in an environment where they won’t feel free to speak openly.
Create an environment that’s as neutral as possible. Explore a co-working space option. You can even rent out hotel conference room space. Ensure that your branding isn’t around. Where it gets tricky is how you communicate with participants prior to the groups – try to use a non-company email, if possible, or use an outside qualitative recruiting company to coordinate the recruiting and scheduling logistics.
How to conduct a focus group, tip #2: Create a well-planned discussion guide
The discussion guide is essentially your “script” for the focus group, though it certainly shouldn’t be read like a script. It’s, as the name implies, a “guide.” However, the design of the guide needs to be meticulously thought out with your team. First outline your goals for the project. What are you hoping to learn and solve? Where are the gaps? Opportunities? Sketch out your priorities, and then structure the guide with these points. In a 2-hour group, you can expect to have time for 3-4 sections, depending on how complex the topic is. Write out your questions, going from general to specific, and make sure you keep them open-ended. Leave plenty of time for follow-up questions, called probes and prompts. Then, once the guide is complete, memorize it. Participants may bring up points that come later in your guide, so instead of jumping all around, be prepared to follow their lead, and then know where you should come back to.
If moderating is intimidating – because it certainly can be – hire a professional qualitative research moderator. A good moderator can lead a room like a conducted guides an orchestra. Though it may look easy, when you see a good moderator in action, you realize there is much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eyes.
How to conduct a focus group, tip #3: Capture your data for later analysis
Our third tip we’ll leave you with is super, super important: The data you’ll be capturing in a focus group. Sometimes, moderators will have a note-taker in the room with them, but the note taker simply can’t keep up with the myriad side-conversations that will happen (and can often yield great insights), nor the body language and expressions that go along with people’s opinions. Our preference is to audio and video record the groups so that your team can later analyze the data closely. Be forewarned, though: In a 2-hour focus group, you can expect to have up to 60 pages of a transcript, and if this multiplied across 4-5 groups, you’ll have a nice chunk of data to sort through. Budget 1-2 full weeks to synthesize and analyze the findings into a report for your team once the groups are complete.
Focus groups can be done internally and on a lower budget, but make sure you dedicate a team of 2-3 more senior employees full-time to the study for 2-3 weeks. Additionally, go into the process knowing that your team will be inherently wearing myopic “glasses,” colored by your brand and their experiences with your product and processes. Hiring a neutral, third-party research company is always the most strategic way to conduct a focus group, but if resources are tight, they can be pulled off by internal teams if you’re needing quick insight-sprints.