Focus groups are when you or a moderator interview six to 12 people in your target demographic about a new product or business idea. A focus group may generate ideas, offer opinions, and provide firsthand feedback. It does not make decisions or dictate business strategy—it is one part of your overall research.
When used as a part of your marketing or business plan research, a well-planned and well-led focus group can help uncover problem areas with your potential product or idea. The group session can also suggest new ideas and confirm, or dispute, the ideas you already hold about your product or service.
1. Define Your Purpose
A focus group should concentrate on a single issue rather than a broad range of topics. As your first step, decide your reason for holding the session: What is the core issue you need to understand? If you aren’t sure, ask yourself the following questions to narrow it down:
- Is there a market for your product or will the product be competitive?
- What features your product or service must offer to be competitive?
- Where will people purchase your product or service—such as the best business location or sales venues like Amazon versus Walmart versus an online store?
- What advertising will get people to take action?
- What content, images, and color will convert people to customers or turn them off?
2. Define Your Participants
Once you understand your core purpose for conducting a focus group, you need to define who you should interview. Start with your customer profile—demographics, interests, and needs. If you are an established business, your ideal participants may be existing customers. Their knowledge of your business and products can provide deeper insights.
Also, think in terms of a homogenous group, so that people will feel more comfortable speaking. Differences in age or job position may cause some participants to feel inhibited and affect the overall conversation.
For example, if you are testing the need for new software, you may want separate groups for programmers versus actual users. A programmer who talks in technical terms may intimidate a user and make them less likely to speak up.
It’s best that participants not know each other. This relationship ensures a broader range of opinions. It also stops friends from supporting each other against the group or building their own “opinion cliques.”
3. Plan Your Logistics
Before you can recruit participants and tell them about the event, you need to figure out the logistics:
- Location: Consider someplace that is easy to access for all parties, has a comfortable space for having discussions, and a way to show visuals such as images of your product, like a television screen. Find a location where volunteers can easily access and won’t have to pay for parking.
- Time: Focus groups take around 45 to 90 minutes. If you are offering food, plan time for eating, especially if you provide a full meal. When planning your schedule, think about the most convenient times for your volunteers—including transit time.
For example, if you target business people on your city block, a lunch session or 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. might be convenient. For mothers of schoolchildren, perhaps 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. might be preferred.
- Food: Plan to offer simple snacks and drinks—at least water. When people share food, they tend to become more comfortable around each other.
- Eliminate barriers: If necessary, offer a child care service or language interpreter—anything that may keep a potential volunteer from attending.
- Name Tents: These folded pieces of paper anonymously identify participants with a number. This anonymity is so the note taker can take notes about participants, and you can review the notes without bias.
- Online Venues: Especially with social distancing, it may be easier to hold a focus group via video conferencing software. Keep in mind the technical skills of your target group when choosing this option.
- Pre-meeting tasks: You can save time by having attendees fill out forms online. If your questions require extra thought, consider sending them ahead of the focus group. If you want attendees to try out a product, send it out before the meeting.
- Recording: Focus groups are about conversation. While you should have a note taker, using a recording device will ensure you get the most accurate information and don’t miss an important point. It can be audio or video, or if online, through the web conferencing software.
4. Recruit Participants
Start the process to attract participants for your focus group. You should get 12 to 15 volunteers. On average, 10% to 20% won’t show up. There are several ways to find volunteers:
- Nomination: People who are familiar with your topic or audience suggest volunteers.
- Random selection: Good process for when you have a large group of people willing to participate.
- Physical flyers and ads: Be sure to include pertinent information, such as the type of person you are looking for and contact information. Post the materials where your best volunteer likely frequents.
- Online advertising and social media: Similar to physical ads, include essential information and also have a link to a survey form where they can sign up.
- Offer an incentive: Most focus groups offer a gift in exchange for the person’s time—cash, gift card, or product. Plan to spend around $25 per person.
Set a time limit for accepting volunteers. Be ready to extend if you don’t get enough. If you have enough candidates to choose from, once the deadline passes, go through them and pick 12-15 that match your target demographic the best (assuming some will not show), and contact them with verification and a reminder of time, date, and location. Include any pre-work you want to be done and remind them of the incentive.
5. Determine Focus Group Questions and Script
You should have eight to 12 questions for your group to discuss. The ideal number is eight but plan to not have all your questions answered as conversations may take exciting turns that you did not anticipate.
Questions need to be aimed toward your goal, easy to understand, and worded to stimulate thought and conversations. Here are some pointers when crafting questions:
- Avoid jargon
- Use simple, precise wording
- Can’t be answered with “Yes,” “No,” or a single data point
- Positive and non-threatening: “What would make you buy X” instead of “Why don’t you buy X?”
- Not leading—avoid, “Don’t you think” or starting a question with your opinions
- Keep questions open-ended
To kick off the conversation, have an icebreaker question. This gets everyone in the room more comfortable with each other.
When you or a moderator starts the session, be ready with follow up questions like “Tell me more” or “What about …” or “Can you elaborate on …” These inquiries reword the questions you may already have asked.
Once you craft the questions, set your agenda, write a rough script, and set your schedule. This organization is especially important if you run more than one group because you want consistent results. For a 90-minute group, consider the following schedule:
- 15 minutes for paperwork or settling in
- 10 minutes to introduce the topic and group
- 45 for questions
- 15 for wrap-up
- 5 for handing out the incentives
Organize your questions in the order of importance. This order allows you to ask your most pressing inquiries first if you run out of time.
6. Select Your Moderator and Team
At the very least, you need two people to lead the focus group: a moderator and an assistant or note taker. You likely want to be the assistant or note taker and someone else to be the moderator. This set up keeps any bias you have for the product or idea out of the conversation.
A moderator welcomes the volunteers, sets the tone for the discussion, and leads them through the questions. They have many tasks: to ensure the conversation stays focused, that everyone can express their opinion, and the discussion remains friendly. Moderators should stay objective—often, businesses will hire a third party to run the discussion.
Because moderating the discussion requires focused attention, someone else should take notes. The note taker can do other tasks like set up name tents, hand out consent forms, and take notes during the discussion.
You may want to recruit other team members for these duties:
- Greeting participants when they first arrive and guiding them to the right room
- Passing out and collecting forms
- Handling food
- Giving out incentives at the end
- Following up with thank-you’s and surveys
7. Facilitate the Discussion
Now it’s time to run the focus group. Remember that when running a focus group, facilitating the discussion that generates ideas and opinions is the goal—not to come to a consensus or seek affirmation.
Once your group fills out forms, grabs a beverage or snack, and settles in, you can start the discussion. Begin by having everyone introduce themselves. You might use an icebreaker question for this.
Next, explain the purpose of the group. Remind the participants that you are recording the proceedings. Let them know that there are no right or wrong answers. Announce any rules for discussion.
Then, begin with your first question. As people answer and your note taker takes notes, keep an eye on the conversation. Draw in people who are not replying by asking them directly what they think.
If a heated discussion breaks out, step in to prevent one or two people from taking over the conversation. It’s better to let the discussions flow naturally than set a time limit for each question, but keep an eye on the time. Move to the next question when the conversation starts repeating, or there are no new thoughts.
Don’t let the discussion go much longer than 45 minutes, even if you still have unanswered questions. This is the optimum time—after that, volunteers get tired and off-track. Once you are near 45 minutes, move to conclude the session.
After your volunteers have left, we recommend debriefing immediately. Go over the notes with your note taker, adding your insights and observations. Insights can include body language as well as takeaways that struck you as valuable. Do this with the recorder still running. Be sure to note the date, time, and location on all tapes, especially if you are doing more than one group.
9. Analyze Data
The analysis starts with a transcription of your recordings. This task can be time-consuming, but worth it. There are transcription services and software available such as Rev. For a free option, you may have success by playing the recording to a word processing software with voice recognition features.
Next, clean up the transcriptions by clearing out the non-essential comments. Using your notes, match observations to each participant. Then, compile these into a database, listing comments by category and including their assigned ID number.
Categories help you identify common issues and to see themes. For example, if you are developing new software, categories might include desired features, annoyances in current offerings, and what creates the best user experience. These categories don’t have to coincide with the questions, but may. If you have leftover comments that don’t fit any categories, search for commonalities. The comments may provide new insights.
Do this for each focus group, then combine them into a larger document. Be sure to identify people by ID and group to go back to recordings if you need details.
10. Create Your Report
When you have your data sorted by categories, start making summaries of each category or subcategory, noting similarities or differences in each group. If any quotes stand out as particularly powerful, add them.
Finally, compile the findings of your focus group into a report. This report can be short. If creating a business plan, you will use these findings in the plan and include the report in the appendix.
The focus group report should include:
- Executive summary
- Details on participant demographics, and experience
- Questions asked and summarized responses
- Specific insights, ideas, standout comments
- Recommendations based on focus group input
Use your report as one variable in your decision to create your business or product. To vet your idea further, consider a crowdfunding campaign to get potential customers to commit funds. Receiving payment from customers is the highest form of validation you can obtain before officially starting your new business idea or product. You can conduct a SWOT analysis to analyze your idea further.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What should a focus group not do?
In general, a focus group should not:
- Come up with solutions
- Become a debate
- Work to make a compromise or consensus
- Be used to collect statistical data
- Be a public relations or marketing ploy
- Confirm your opinions (It may, but that’s not the goal)
Should I run more than one focus group?
If you have the resources, it’s a good idea to run more than one focus group to get a broader range of opinions. You can also run it with different target audience demographics. Use the same set of questions so you can compare answers between groups.
What can I use a focus group for?
In addition to testing out business or product ideas, use a focus group for:
- Product usability and preferred functions
- Price and offers
- Brand positioning
- Testing marketing ads or product packaging
- Discovering the best way to market to your audience
What incentives should I offer participants?
Choose something that will appeal to your audience and be worthy of their time and trouble. A good price point is $25. Generally, we recommend gift cards. Products and services are also acceptable. A goodie bag with custom swag is an excellent addition and keeps your business in their minds after leaving.
If your budget is tight, you can offer a raffle, such as a chance to win $150. If you have 10 people, they have a 1-in-10 chance to win, which are favorable odds, and you spend only $150 instead of $225.
What’s the best way to take notes?
Ultimately, the best way to take notes is up to your note taker. The essential tasks are to note the responses, who made them (by attendee number), which comments are common, and which comments are the most illuminating.
Remember, the insights from a focus group come from an excellent discussion. Before the discussion occurs, recruit quality participants, create questions that spark thought, and set up an environment where participants feel comfortable. While focus groups do not make the decision to move forward, they do provide valuable insight to augment your research. If you’re creating a business plan, include your results to strengthen your assumptions.