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Focus groups are useful for businesses that want to learn more about their customers or a potential target audience. They allow you to gather insights and engage in interactive conversations that can shape your business decisions.
So what are focus groups, exactly? Generally, it’s a guided discussion with a representative group of consumers about a new product, initiative, or marketing campaign. You ask questions and facilitate a dialogue among your target market to learn about their opinions and then use those insights to shape your campaigns or launches going forward.
Once you’ve decided that your small business needs to hold focus groups, you need to figure out how to get it done. Here’s how to run a focus group.
How to Run a Focus Group
Not all focus groups are the same. But there is a general list of steps that can help guide your journey toward gathering useful information from target customers.
Every focus group should have a specific goal. Don’t treat it as a general market research session; instead, use it as an opportunity to learn about consumers’ opinions about a specific part of your initiative. For example, if you’re thinking about implementing a new product line full of eco-friendly items, your topics of discussion should focus on how much customers value this quality, rather than other aspects of those products.
Specify Your Target Market
You also need to think about what target customers you want to learn from. If a new product is mainly just aimed at an older demographic, you should focus on this group. Generally, you want a representative group, so try to get people from every demographic or interest group that might make up your relevant customer base.
Choose a Location and Time
You need a physical location large enough to accommodate your participants in one space, like a hall or large meeting room. Generally, you just want about five to fifteen participants in each conversation. However, you should make it easy for everyone to get to, with ample parking or close to public transit. When scheduling, be mindful of the time when your ideal participants are likely to be available. For example, if you’re marketing to professionals, it should probably be after work hours.
Then it’s time to actually invite people to take part in your focus group. You can reach out directly to customers from your email address or list, or advertise the opportunity in publications or outlets that are popular with the group or target market. For example, if you’re looking for pet owners in your community, put up ads around local veterinary offices. Ask people to reach out to confirm, and you might even offer a small gift or incentive for participating.
Once you have your goals and participants in mind, you need to get more specific about what you want to ask. All questions should be focused on your objectives, with each designed to spark deep conversations. Try to keep everything unbiased and open-ended, like “why” and “how” questions.
Facilitate the Group
Now you get to actually run the event. Ideally, you should have two or more team members present. One is there to ask the questions and facilitate discussions. The other should take notes, record, and provide support throughout the session. While it’s important to stick with a general outline and list of topics, you should also stay open-minded and allow participants to bring up points that they think are important. You might be surprised by what you learn if you simply follow a thread and give people a forum to share openly.
Analyze the Results
Your focus group is only effective if you’re able to act on the information provided. Take some time afterward to go through the notes and recordings to dig into the information that participants provided. You might notice trends that shape your campaigns or initiatives or note interesting points you hadn’t thought of before. Then you can act on that information to improve your new products or marketing campaigns based on the results.
Focus Group Tips
Running a successful focus group takes a lot of careful planning and finesse. If you’re new to this concept, take these tips to heart as you plan, facilitate, and analyze this useful market research method.
1. Prioritize Objectives
Aside from your general goal for the focus group, create a shortlist of questions you want to answer by the end. These aren’t necessarily the exact questions you ask; those should be designed to facilitate conversations surrounding your objectives.
2. Break Down Customer Groups
You also need to evaluate what demographic groups you want to include in your focus group. Then determine what percentage of each group should fit with each type of customer.
3. Separate Groups If Necessary
If you want to get information from multiple groups but you’re worried about customers not sharing honestly with the full group present, consider separating them and running different groups. For example, certain topics might not be comfortable for men and women to discuss in the same room, so you might separate them into two groups.
4. Choose a Convenient Location
You need to make it as easy as possible for participants to show up. So choose a public place that’s easily accessible and won’t take too much time for people to travel to and from. Then provide clear directions so everyone knows exactly how to get there. Bonus if there’s free parking or access to nearby busses or trains.
5. Create a Comfortable Atmosphere
You want your participants to feel comfortable so they can speak openly and stay focused throughout the session. Set a comfortable temperature and provide nice seating with enough space for everyone. To make people feel socially comfortable, set out name tags for everyone so they can get to know each other and introduce yourself in a friendly way as they arrive. You might also provide light refreshments, especially if you plan on keeping them for an hour or more.
6. Invite More Participants Than You Need
Even if you provide an incentive, some of your participants might not show up due to last-minute schedule conflicts, so you may want to invite more people than you can actually use for the focus group. Don’t go overboard, because you don’t want the room to be too crowded, but if you want a group of 10, consider inviting 12 or so just in case. Ideally, create a range of acceptable groups and then invite the highest number you’d be comfortable with.
7. Start with the Most Important Questions
Participants are likely to be most focused and open to discussion early on. So prioritize the questions you really want to cover upfront. This will also help you make sure those get answered just in case other topics run longer than expected or discussion veers off course in an unexpected direction.
8. Word Questions to Facilitate Discussion
Steer clear of yes or no questions as much as possible, and try to keep everything open so people talk for as long as possible. The whole purpose of a focus group is to gather information, so diving deep is almost always beneficial. Try to use topics that start with “what,” “why,” and “how” as much as possible.
9. Vary Question Types
However, you can keep people’s interest better if your questions vary in format. For example, you might go with some open-ended questions, some word association games, and some loose discussions. Try to evenly spread these question types out throughout the session. Create different sections so people don’t get bored and the focus group doesn’t feel too repetitive.
10. Keep Questions Neutral
You should also avoid biased wording. If participants think you’re looking for a specific response, they’re likely to tell you what you want to hear. Since your goal should be to gather honest feedback, stay away from questions that include wording like “Wouldn’t you say…?” or “Don’t you think…?”
11. Ask Follow Up Questions
Your focus group might reveal topics or information that you didn’t expect, so you should be open to asking questions not on your list. You might prepare a few potential follow-ups, but you should also be prepared to think on the fly.
12. Speak Directly to Quiet Participants
Sometimes, one person might dominate the discussion in a focus group, so make sure to address other participants directly so you can gather insights from everyone. You don’t need to be rude or demanding, just go around the room or direct certain questions to specific individuals.
13. Consider Quick Ice Breakers
At the beginning of the focus group, you might consider going around the room and asking people to introduce themselves or share quick ice-breaker questions. This can help people feel more comfortable opening up with other participants.
14. Take Notes
Even if you’re recording the session, noting specific parts of the session can help you refer back to useful insights later on. Have a team member who’s not facilitating the session listen in and call attention to points that seem important.
15. Record Sessions
Even with notes, you may want to go back and listen to the full discussion later on. An audio or video recording can help you go back with other team members so you can analyze everything carefully.
16. Notice Body Language
Not all of your insights have to come from things that were actually said during the focus group. Sometimes, you can learn just as much by looking at people’s faces and noticing their body language as they talk. Have your note taker specify things like facial expressions and posture throughout the session. For example, a person who sits up and gets wide-eyed during a specific ad or question shows that they’re especially interested in that area. And if possible, a video recording can help you more effectively analyze this aspect of the focus group later on.
17. Keep It Short
Time is an important element of planning focus groups. The longer your focus group runs, the more likely your participants may start to get bored or disengaged. This can lead to less accurate insights or less engaged discussion. To keep everyone’s attention, try to keep it to about an hour to an hour and a half. Practice the session beforehand and keep an eye on the time throughout the discussion to keep it moving along.
18. Wrap Up Key Points
During the discussion, participants may sometimes make points that are a bit complex or disconnected. To keep other participants engaged and clear up everything for you and your team members, try to wrap up these points periodically. Just summarize in your own words in a simplified manner. Then you can ask to make sure you have a clear understanding of what they meant.
19. Look for Overall Themes
As you go through and analyze the discussion from the focus group, try to look out for recurring themes or points that multiple participants have used or made. You don’t need to act on every single point that each individual makes, but those that come up, again and again, are likely worth at least exploring.
20. Collect Personal Information
You need to collect consent from each focus group participant. You should also gather some basic personal information so you can break down insights even further. Before you get started, have each person fill out a quick form that grants you permission to use their insights and asks about their email address or contact information and basic demographic data. This can help you notice deeper trends from the sessions. For example, you might notice that older participants tend to feel more positively toward your potential new product than younger participants. This could allow you to more easily determine who to market your new product to.
Focus groups are a popular market research method used for learning more about your customers. If you’ve never hosted a focus group for your small business before, the tips above can allow you to stay organized and actually pull valuable insights from the participants that can make your new initiatives successful. Once you host your first focus group, you can learn what strategies you used worked best for your business and then make adjustments as you move forward. Each time you conduct focus groups for your business, you’re likely to get even better at each step and ultimately gather more beneficial results.