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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.