4 Key Elements of a Successful Focus Group

Focus groups can be a powerful tool for understanding how consumers view and interact with your brand. From finding the right place to the right participants, here's what you should know to achieve the best results.
Writer and Editor, Virginia Living, Washington Post, American Express
March 30, 2015

The one-way mirrors are back! Focus groups can be a powerful way to inform company exploration into new areas—for example, when entering a new category of business, or understanding how consumers view and interact with a brand.

Surveys tend to be better for more quantitative research—yes/no questions and objective issues like pricing. But for squishy areas like ideas and opinions, a focus group can be the best way to listen to your target market tell stories and share ideas.

Successful focus groups often nail the following four key elements.

1. Location

A professional, neutral space can be critical for “blinded” studies in which the participants don’t know what brand they're evaluating. Absent a dedicated focus group space, consider using a community center, church or school conference room.  

The classic two-way mirror allows company representatives to watch the proceedings unfold. Webcams and other live-feed options let others attend remotely, in real time. Good audio and video technology captures the discussion for later viewing—body language will be a critical part of interpreting the results.

If possible, the room should be soundproof, so as not to distract participants from the discussion. “It’s important to create a safe environment for people to feel they can express anything,” says Merrill Shugoll, president of Shugoll Research in Bethesda, Maryland.

2. Moderator

A skilled moderator will usually meet with clients first to discuss the business problems, challenges or opportunities that the focus group should explore, then build an agenda for the discussion. The moderator should be able to maintain a sharp business focus while also managing an unbiased, wide-ranging and open group discussion—this may not be an ideal job for your internal team.  

The moderator may break out arts and crafts materials, collages or even tarot cards during the focus group discussion. Moderators must have the tools and patience to coax participants to share their stories, which can sometimes be frustrating for company observers, anxious to get to the point.

3. Participants

For best results, focus group participants should be as homogeneous of a group as possible. For example, a focus group for a product or service whose primary audience is female should have—not surprisingly—female participants who line up with the target demographic.

For a product or service with multiple target audiences, you should create a balanced group with enough representation from each perspective, but avoid potential conversation blockers like race or status. “For example, we constantly tell clients that you can’t mix presidents of companies in with staff people if you want to explore the culture of a company,” Shugoll says. “[In that scenario], staffers won’t talk.”

4. Results

Focus-group reports probably won’t be full of charts and graphs. Qualitative data can be tricky to shoehorn into a traditional PowerPoint presentation, so be prepared for something a little different in the report format. This can be narratives, quotes, pictures and even videos from the discussion.

Even if you observe one of the focus group discussions, resist the temptation to put your observations and insights to work immediately. Give analysts time to comb through the discussion notes and video to identify themes that emerge based on body language, what was said and what wasn’t said.  

Is a focus group right for your company? The best way to calculate ROI may be to assess how much a wrong decision would cost you. For example, a grocery store investing in new shopping carts for 200 locations probably would want customer feedback. But that same grocer debating about designating a few “candy-free” checkout lanes has a much lower potential loss riding on that decision. In other words, with this qualitative type of research, sometimes it can work to just go with your gut.

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Photo: Getty Images

Writer and Editor, Virginia Living, Washington Post, American Express