Anyone can run a focus group – can’t they?

Many’s the time an eager, articulate but otherwise ill-equipped and typically junior person in an advertising agency, is sent off, on behalf of a client organisation, to ‘do a couple of focus groups and find out … (complete the rest)’.

It’s dangerous behaviour and wholly unprofessional – but ‘surely it can’t be any more complicated than getting few people together and asking them some questions? What’s so difficult about that?’

Good focus groups generate insight that influences subsequent actions – many of which will be significant through resulting outputs and their on-going effect.

It’s all very well applying a ‘light touch’ when asking a group of people why they prefer Colgate to Sensodyne or what they expect from the Post Office. But it’s a wholly different proposition when investigating the perceptions, beliefs and views of specific groups of people, on employment. This is particularly so when focusing on their current employer and when the insights derived will affect, eg: the articulation and delivery of the employer value proposition, or shape the graduate attraction programme for the next three years.

Bad focus groups generate little more than ill feeling amongst the participants (who have given their time – a precious commodity often assigned three times over to daily target-driven tasks), and ineffectual results. On the long-term they can undermine the reputation of the project teams – within both the client organisation and the provider. Worst case, the project does not deliver, the messages that emanate as a result are misplaced or simply wrong, and the organisation has to do it again, – thus its reputation is undermined too.

So how do we make the most of this valuable form of research? A few suggestions – not the whole piece by any means, but some significant elements to bear in mind if you are thinking of doing this ‘quick and dirty’!

1. You need a good team            

            a. Moderator

  • This is a ‘proper job’, not something to do in spare moments. It’s not the person described in Para 1 above. It may not be their permanent, full-time job, but a Moderator should have been professionally trained as such.
  • The moderator needs the skill to both secure the information they need (and they may have to try several approaches to do this) and the experience to recognise when a digression has value and is worthy of further exploration. They need to hold the attention and sustain the interest of the group and encourage their input.

            b. Scribe

  • This is a proper job too, but does not require moderation skills – the person supports the moderator throughout the session, taking flip chart notes, managing materials and helping with team management throughout. With a scribe on hand, the moderator can moderate and keep their attention focused.

2. Planning is key

  • There should be a briefing session when the focus group activity (and any other research) is discussed and the objectives, desired outcomes and broad session content agreed). The moderator should be in on the brief – they need to understand the project objectives and desired outcomes, the organisation and the intended participant group.

3. Develop a detailed Session Plan

  • This should be developed by the moderator, approved by the client in its outline form and produced as a detailed stage management tool for use by the moderator throughout the session.

4. Manage the time – to the minute

  • The session content should be carefully timed to ensure that its delivery is feasible in the time available and to the intended number of participants.
  • An experienced moderator will know what can and cannot be achieved – they will also know what it is appropriate to cover in a focus group and what is better secured through a different form of research.

5. Take a varied approach to securing the insights you need

  • The session should involve a mix of activities, exercises, discussions and Q&A to generate the feedback that will drive the resulting insights – and to sustain interest throughout. Different people respond to different approaches and a focus group is about securing group opinion, so group exercises and activities are often useful.

6. Have empathy with the group

  • The language and materials used throughout should sit comfortably with the participant group – feel familiar.
  • The Moderator needs to have done their homework and understand the organisation – and the subject matter as it relates to the participants.

7. Manage expectations

  • All participants need to be informed in advance about the session and outline content so that they arrive confident and feeling able to contribute.
  • They will also want to know what will happen as a result of their input – so the moderator needs to be able to inform them.

As for reporting the session – or sessions – well, that’s a different matter entirely