10 tips for running successful focus groups - by Tom Greenbaum of Groups Plus

September 14, 1998

10 tips for running successful focus groups

by Thomas L. Greenbaum

How often do we researchers take time to reflect on our work and identify the key lessons that might be useful to others in the profession or considering entering it?

I have spent most of the last 15 years moderating focus groups on a wide variety of topics for more than 300 different organizations. As a result, I have learned some important lessons about focus groups that I want to share:

1. You never can do too much planning for a focus group.

    The effort put into advanced planning for a group always pays out in terms of the overall quality of the output from the process. This includes such things as the most appropriate recruitment parameters, the content and flow of the discussion guide and the "external stimuli" that are used to elicit reactions from the participants.

2. Manage the recruitment process actively to be sure to get the right people in the groups.

    Despite the good intentions of recruitment organizations throughout the country, the moderator has the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the respondents.

    Because the quality of the output from focus groups depends on having the right people in the room, I decided years ago to invest in a full-time field professional to focus on this aspect. This enables me to concentrate on the actual focus group process, including developing the moderator guide, moderating groups and writing effective reports.

3. Don’t prejudge the participants based on physical appearance.

    I have found that the appearance of the people in the groups generally has little relationship to how effective they can be as participants. Further, a participant’s not having a great deal of formal education does not mean he or she does not have a great deal to say about a key topic being evaluated.

    Clearly it is easier to conduct and watch focus groups comprised of attractive, articulate, educated people. But it is vital to realize that these characteristics are not necessarily critical to gathering useful information.

4. The best focus group moderators bring objectivity and expertise in the process to a project.

    Specific product knowledge should not be an important criteria in selecting a moderator because a well-trained professional will take the time needed to learn enough about the topic being discussed to be an effective facilitator.

    An effective moderator must be able to draw people out in a group environment, listen well, interpret the results of the sessions and communicate those results effectively to the clients.

5. Achieving research objectives does not guarantee a successful focus group project.

    Some clients only view groups that educate and entertain as an effective research tool. Others have different research objectives that must be accommodated before they will feel the process was a success. These could include such things as the decor and comfort of the focus group facilities and the presentation of personally selected gourmet food for the client observers.

    An effective moderator must be aware of these factors to have a satisfied client who will return.

6. The moderator and the client should coordinate their efforts at all stages of the process for the research to achieve its objectives.

    For the moderator, this includes obtaining client input to the discussion guide and working with client organizations to develop the most effective external stimuli.

    It also means regular communication between the moderator and the client observers who are watching a group from behind the one-way mirror. This should take the form of face-to-face discussions at regular intervals during the group, rather than random notes being sent into the room at the whim of a backroom observer.

    Client observers need to be briefed about the most effective way to work with the moderator so that during the focus group session, minimal time is spent communicating the maximum amount of information.

7. Most client organizations conduct more focus groups than are necessary to achieve the research objectives.

    It is not unusual for an organization to do eight, 10 or 12 groups in a series when four or six would be adequate.

    There is no sure way to determine the optimal number of groups in a research program, but I generally find relatively few differences by geographic area.

    So, I encourage clients to conduct as few sessions as makes them comfortable, with the caveat that it is always possible to conduct more if necessary.

8. One of the most important services a moderator can provide is a fast report turnaround.

    Because of the subjective nature of focus groups, it is common for different client observers to leave with different interpretations of the most important information that emerged.

    By giving the client organization a full report within three to five days after the group, the people who attended the sessions quickly gain the benefit of the moderator’s perspective so they can identify what they do and do not agree with.

    In addition, each of the observers can use the moderator’s report to determine the common areas of agreement and disagreement. This is particularly important, as the ultimate findings and conclusions from the research will be distributed throughout the organization.

9. Client observers should be thoroughly briefed about the research objectives before the sessions start.

    Although most people who observe focus groups understand the process and have watched focus groups from behind the one-way mirror before, it helps to review the goals of the sessions beforehand to ensure that all the observers are in sync with the objectives and the desired output.

    This can help you avoid embarrassing last-minute surprises.

10. The most valuable service a moderator can provide is objective conclusions based on the interpretation of the research, without regard for what the client wants to hear.

It is easier to give clients good news that confirms their beliefs, but it is a mistake to try to sugarcoat conclusions so the client is not disturbed with the outcome of the groups. A qualitative research consultant must offer clients total objectively and honesty in order to provide the expected quality of service and professionalism.

This is one of the most important things a moderator can do for the client. It’s probably the only one in which the moderator has a unique position because the client personnel who attended the sessions have their own internal agendas for the research that affects their interpretation of the research results.

Thomas Greenbaum is president of GroupsPlus Inc., a focus group research and consulting practice based in Fairfield County, CT.

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