Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President, Discovery Surveys, Inc.
This article originally appeared in Folio magazine

The basic guidelines for a successful focus group are the same,
whether you do it yourself or hire an outside moderator.

A focus group is a qualitative research technique for gathering information. It can provide you with answers to how, what and why questions -- for example, "What types of new topics would our readers like to see in our magazine?" "Why do our readers subscribe?" "What is the best way for us to position our magazine to potential new subscribers?" Why did some readers decide not to renew?"

Typically a trained moderator presents a series of prepared, open-ended questions on a specific topic to a group of seven to 10 carefully selected individuals who are capable of providing the highest quality discussion about the topic being researched. But do you have to use a professional moderator? Can you run a focus group yourself? Maybe. Here are some issues to consider.

  • Cost

    Using your own staff to conduct the groups can save you the cost of hiring an outside professional. And for many small magazines, in-house direction may be the only practical alternative. The pivotal question is whether the cost savings outweigh the better-quality the research and objectivity that you might obtain by using an independent, professional moderator. In many organizations, using an outside expert will confer increased credibility to the results from the viewpoint of key decision-makers.

  • Expertise

    You and your staff know more about your magazine and your readers than an outside researcher would know. You are therefore in a better position to understand the nuances of the conversation -- which in turn makes you able to gather more information from the session. However, professional moderators are experienced in gathering information about a particular topic to be researched. And because they make it clear to participants that they are not experts on the topic, it is easier for them to ask useful, probing questions that would be unacceptable from an "expert."

  • Time Savings

    You may have the flexibility in your schedule to arrange and conduct groups more quickly than if you had to conform to the schedule of an outside moderator. However, meeting publication deadlines, fire-fighting and operating your business might make it very difficult for you to conduct the project quickly.

Do it right:

Whether you conduct the groups yourself or with the help of an outside moderator, the focus groups most be properly conceived and conducted if they are to yield useful information. Here are some important guidelines:

  • Set your objectives carefully.

    You must be clear from the outset what you really want to learn from the participants and how you'll use the information once you have it.

  • Choose the appropriate research method.

    Focus groups are most appropriate for exploring new ideas and gathering reactions to new formats. However, they cannot provide you with a statistically representative view of your subscribers or with precise answers from the different segments of your subscriber list. Quantitative readership surveys are more appropriate for these types of questions.

  • Select the appropriate setting.

    Professionally conducted focus groups are usually held in special focus group facilities. Focus group facilities are located in most major cities throughout the country. Most provide one-way windows so that the sponsors of the study can observe the sessions. They are also equipped with both audio and video taping capabilities. Often, a hostess greets the participants and refreshments are served prior to the session. Alternatively, if you have a quiet conference room and a tight budget, you could conduct the focus groups at your own office facilities.

  • Invite the right people to participate.

    Inviting seven to ten current subscribers may be appropriate for the questions you are interested in asking. However, it might make more sense to invite only subscribers who have not renewed, subscribers who have purchased from your advertisers, or non-subscribers. It all depends on your objectives.

  • Conduct multiple groups.

    Most focus group studies involve the use of several groups. This is a way to test for consistency. It is also a way to explore the views of different segments of your readership.

  • Recruit participants carefully.

    Focus group facilities typically have professional recruiters on staff or on contract that will invite participants via telephone. They will ask you to define the type of participants you are seeking (e.g., age, gender, income, or occupation). They will also ask you to prepare a script for the telephone recruiters. They can recruit from your subscriber list or from general lists they maintain. The script is used to describe the purpose of the session and to make certain the potential participant meets the criteria you have established. Alternatively, you can conduct the recruiting yourself from your subscriber list.

  • Prepare thoroughly for the session.

    You should develop an interview guide ahead of time with key open-ended questions and prompts to stimulate discussion. Use a variety of methods to keep the interest of participants. For example, during a recent focus-group session, The Discovery Surveys, Inc. reviewed a sample printed piece, administered a short quiz, and presented a 10 minute videotape to stimulate discussions.

  • Leave the note-taking for later.

    Properly facilitating a focus group session requires a great deal of attention and energy. Notes can be taken by observers or by the focus group moderator after the session. Listening to audiotapes of the session can jog your memory.

  • Make certain everyone participates.

    The conclusions you reach will be based on the qualitative insights you gain during the session. It is therefore important that you hear the views of all the participants. Don't let a few vocal members take over the session.

  • Listen carefully to the participants.

    Don't let your preconceptions or biases contaminate the words of the participants. For example, a few years ago, we conducted focus groups for a financial organization interested in promoting their college loan services to companies as an employee benefit. We recruited several groups of HR executives. The groups were overwhelmingly opposed to the idea. Yet, some members of the client team were still convinced that the idea was a good one.

  • Be prepared to use the results.

    Ignoring the results of focus group sessions is a waste of time and money. Prepare ahead of time to act on what you learn -- whether the information confirms or disproves you initial ideas. For example, a national communications company recently conducted focus groups with employees to learn about their views of the company benefit program. They knew it would be very important for them to respond quickly to any concerns that might be raised. Senior management therefore met as a team to decide, in advance, the process they would use to respond to the information they might receive.

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