When it comes to collecting high-quality, detailed customer feedback, creating a focus group is one of the best ways to do it. So, what’s the purpose of focus groups—and how can you run one in a way that maximizes insight and helps you gain a deeper understanding of how your ideal customer thinks?

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a method of market research that involves getting a group of people together to gather feedback about an offering, this can be a campaign, product, service, etc. Typically, focus groups involve a well-trained facilitator along with carefully selected group members that fit the target market of whatever you’re gathering feedback on. Beyond the usual topics of products and services, focus groups can also be run to get insights on training, messaging, and almost any question you want to verify by collecting data.

What do focus groups do?

Before getting into the weeds of how to run a focus group, it’s important to understand their purpose and answer the question: what do focus groups do?

Focus groups offer scalability and group interaction

With a focus group, you can get rich, detailed feedback from your ideal customers with less time and monetary investment than other qualitative feedback methods like one-on-one interviews or ethnography. Another great thing about focus groups is that they generate discussion when facilitated well. Participants not only get the opportunity to give their opinions but also to comment on and respond to others’ opinions, generating discussion and insights that you couldn’t have anticipated or written in a survey.

Focus groups are a great source of qualitative feedback

With surveys, it’s easy to generate quantitative feedback, which is helpful when refining products, services, and campaigns. However, focus groups offer qualitative data, giving you a personal, bird’s-eye view of how your customer sees your offering in the world and the topics you present to them. When a focus group is run successfully, it gives your developer, designers, and marketers a roadmap for more successful launches.

How to run a focus group

1. Set up a focus group

A focus group without objectives might as well be called a book club. Start strong by meeting with team members and coming up with three to four objectives for the focus group. These objectives should serve as guides throughout the process to make sure you’re on track to gathering the information you need through questions and answers.

2. Select your participants, facilitator, and observers

Participants

Most focus groups function best between 4–12 participants. You want a group that’s not too big or too small to encourage healthy discussion. While ideally selection of participants should be randomized in some ways, you want the group to be reflective of your target audience.

Facilitator and observers

Facilitators can either be sourced in-house or hired, depending on the importance of the project as well as your budget. If hiring someone is beyond budget, don’t worry. A facilitator from inside of your organization can be trained on how to run a focus group (more on this later). Every focus group should also have a few observers from the organization who watch and take note of reactions, including body language, from another room.

3. Run the focus group

Establish ground rules

Group dynamics can be a lot to reign in, and the best way to get ahead of that potential challenge is by establishing solid ground rules for your focus group. This is the time for the facilitator to reiterate the purpose of the study to participants, remind them that it’s ok to agree and disagree, and encourage open communication.

Present the topic for discussion

Once the rules are established, you can present the subject of the focus group; which could be a product that group members interact with, or a presentation on a service or campaign to inform them. Once participants have had time to experience the topic that’s up for discussion, it’s time to read the room.

Probe into participant reactions

Unlike a survey, you have the unique opportunity to dig deeper when a participant reacts in a way that makes you want to learn more. Facilitators should be trained adequately to know when to ask for clarification and be careful to avoid creating bias in participant responses. Avoid leading questions that imply a particular answer, double-barreled questions that ask multiple questions at once, or closed questions that discourage elaboration for best results.

4. Analyze and apply the data

Once you’ve ended the focus group (don’t forget to thank your participants!), it’s time to collect and analyze the insights. Looking for common themes is one way to understand responses from focus groups. You can also assign value to certain responses and standardize insights to further organize them. No matter how you choose to look at the data, remember to filter responses through your original objectives to maintain focus.

Tips for focus group facilitators

Now that we’ve covered how to run a focus group, here are some helpful tips for focus group facilitators.

1. Make sure to cover all of the questions

Facilitating groups of any size can be a challenge to stay on schedule. With that reality, focus group facilitators should keep time at top of mind in order to make it through the full schedule of questions. Often, focus groups are run over several sessions, so take the time to plan ahead on each session’s agenda to ensure everything gets covered.

2. Make sure everyone gets a chance to share

Every group will have people that can’t wait to share their opinions, and people that will think their opinions don’t need to be shared (despite being a participant in a focus group, which is, quite literally, the point of being in a focus group.) How do you manage these dynamics? Facilitators should gently guide discussions and even ask quieter participants questions directly to make sure everyone has a chance to respond. If there’s a particularly talkative group member that is resistant to create space for others to share, a facilitator could ask other group members to respond to what’s being said to encourage a more lively discussion.

3. Learn to be comfortable with silence

It can be tempting to fill those awkward silences focus groups inevitably experience, but doing so can actually limit who speaks and what kinds of insights you gather. A good rule of thumb for group facilitators is to count six seconds each time they finish asking a question and every time someone finishes speaking. This gives ample opportunity for those participants who need that silence to collect their thoughts.

Customers are your biggest source of insight

When it comes to how to run a focus group, the customer is key. They’re the people you serve, and their opinions should drive how your products, services, and messaging are developed. If there’s one thing you take away from our advice on creating a focus group, it’s this: don’t run a focus group unless you’re ready to make a change. Gathering customer feedback only makes a difference when you respond to it. And when you do, your customers will thank you for it.

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