How to organise a focus group

Focus groups are brilliant way to gather important, raw research from your target audience; keeping them relaxed and as natural as possible so the responses they give are honest and unbiased. In this post I have outlined how to organise a focus group, from planning to final execution.

Recently going through my room, I found my university dissertation, which is something I am still proud of today. Primary research was a huge part of my report, where I created questionnaires, conducted interviews and held focus groups to gather the information I needed. Having read through my report, it suddenly sunk in what a huge piece of work it was, but also just how important some of the skills were that I picked up from it. One of which is how to organise a focus group appropriately, not just in the planning stages, but during the actual focus group too; how do you conduct it so you get the answers you’re looking for? This is what I’ll be outlining below.

So first thing’s first:

1. Why organise a focus group?

Focus groups are not only relatively cheap and easy to conduct, but they’re also a great way of understanding consumers and getting rich information and insights from them.

The beauty of asking people questions in a group is that they can build on one another’s responses, which wouldn’t necessarily happen in a one-to-one interview. The vast majority of people also feel more comfortable in a group, rather than on their own and so are likely to speak up more and voice their own opinions honestly.

2. What are your objectives?

You need to warrant your need for conducting a focus group, so think about what it is you’re hoping to gain from it. Be specific when thinking about this.

 3. What questions should you ask?

Something you need to consider when thinking about how to organise a focus group, is what questions should you ask? This ties in with my above point. Thinking about your objectives, should lead to the types of questions you want to ask.

From my experience, I’ve found a ball park figure of at least 10 questions is a good amount to have, ensuring your questions will be thorough enough. Also when asking your participants the questions, don’t feel afraid to divert away from the questions you already written down. If someone has stated something, which has made you think of a new question on the spot, ask it. Get closure. Don’t ignore any avenue for possible information.

Also, ask open ended questions. In other words, ask questions which don’t require ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. You want to get people thinking and draw out the discussion. Instead of asking “do you like this advert / product?” Ask, “how does this advert / product make you feel? What do you think of it?”

4. Create an agenda

Once you have your questions written up, create a focus group agenda. This should start with an introduction, thanking the group for participating, why the research is being conducted, how the groups answers will be used and an outline of what they can expect from the focus group. It is also worth offering a copy of the final research to participants if they so wish.

Then outline the main sections of your focus group and what questions will be asked in each section. For example, in one of my focus groups, one section was focused on ‘views on normal women’s bodies’, under that heading I listed the questions I wanted to ask – what do you think is the average women’s size / what influence do you think the media and advertising has on women’s bodies etc…

Finally, include how long you estimate the focus group will last, where and when it is being held. Also if you’re going to record their responses somehow (see point 8) make sure this is mentioned too.

5. Plan your session

Think about how long, realistically, it will last. For a group of 5 – 8, with 10 or more questions you want to look at around 2 – 2.5 hours to get all the information you’re hoping for comfortably.

6. Find a venue

When you come to recruit your focus group participants, you don’t want them to go too far out their way. They are doing you a favour after all. So make sure you give lots of time to finding your ideal focus group venue. If it’s work work, is your office building near by? Is there a local library, or community centre you could use? Is there a venue locally you could hire out?

If you’re using a public place, make sure you get permission first.

Wherever you choose, ensure you pick a quiet venue, or a venue with a quiet room, with little to no distractions.

7. How to recruit participants

Before conducting my focus group, I was also looking to gain insight via questionnaires. I found this to be a great way to recruit participants.

As they answered my questions, I explained my research in more detail and what my goals were. I then explained my aims for a focus group, what I was hoping to gain from it and if they would mind taking part. I also told them roughly how long the session would last and where it would be held, so they had enough information to base their decision on.

It’s also a good idea to explain to them how the information you gather will be used, so the participant knows what they’re getting themselves into and how their opinions will be used.

I would also recommend that between 3 – 8 participants is a good number to aim for. You want the research to be broad and varied, but you want a group size that’s easy enough to handle and moderate. You also don’t want a a group to be too big, so that everyone has a fair chance of speaking. If there’s too many people, you’ll find some quieter characters will have trouble being heard, or getting a word in.

If you are recruiting participants in the street via questionnaires, have your agenda to hand, so you can hand them out to those who agree to take part.

Another good way to recruit is online. You could either place an advert on your website, stating the kind of people you’re looking for (your target audience) and ask them to get in touch with you. You could also take advantage of the likes of Twitter and Facebook. When people do get in touch, email them the agenda so they know roughly what questions to expect and when and where the focus group will take place.

8. How to record your data?

It cannot be expected for you to memorise everyones responses. Nor is it realistic to assume you’ll be able to make notes as the focus group happens. Think about what will benefit your group most. Are you interested in peoples body language and facial expressions? Or do you want to remember exactly who said what or what they looked like? Then film the focus group.

If alternatively, you’re only interested in what they have to say, then perhaps a voice recorder is a better way to go? Whichever method you choose, as stated in point 4, make sure you inform and get the users permission first.

9. Mediate

For the responses (and your research) to be fair, you want your participants to be unbiased. Make sure you always mediate the conversations and ensure they’re not swaying towards a bias.

Also keep focused on each of your participants, make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Don’t let strong characters dominate discussions. If someone seems quiet, ask them what their thoughts are on the question directly. Engage all participants and get them involved.

Another good way of doing this is to sit everyone in a circle, so everyone can be seen and heard. Where possible, it would be preferable to sit them around a table. Also provide refreshments; this automatically makes people feel more relaxed and natural.

10. Closing the session

I think this goes without saying, but it’s very important to thank your participants for their time. Explain again what you’re going to do with research and how you’re going to use it and explain the same for how you’re going to use the recordings, or whatever method you chose to record their responses.

If you have any questions, or your own tip you’d like to input on how to organise a focus group best, then please either leave me a comment below or give me a message on Twitter, thanks!