focus groups

Build on Metrics by Designing Effective Focus Groups

Latest posts by Darshan Mehta (see all)

Click-through rates, purchasing history, engagement rates—such metrics are helpful, but for ultimate success as a brand, you need to get beyond the what of customer behavior and uncover the why

Focus groups are one of the most effective ways to do that. They allow you to engage your customers in conversation and gain valuable qualitative feedback that adds context and dimension to quantitative measures.

How much you get out of focus groups depends entirely on the quality of your execution. Focus groups require an investment of time and money, and you don’t want your effort and resources to be wasted on mediocre, unhelpful results. So here are five tips to make your focus groups more effective.


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Tip #1: Hold multiple sessions.

One of the most common questions people ask me is how many focus groups they need to conduct to collect the data they seek. The truthful answer is the more focus groups, the better. No one has unlimited time or assets, however, so deciding on a reasonable number is part of the process.

I recommend a minimum of two sessions that cover the same ground. Ideally, the participant compositions should be consistent across both groups. Then, to confirm your findings, I recommend two additional sessions that have consistent group compositions and incorporate the same questions.

A single focus group is better than none, but with only one focus group, you’re working with a very small sample set of your customers. You risk getting an inaccurate picture of your customers and brand based on a minority’s opinion. So it’s better to hold multiple sessions.

Tip #2: Recruit participants thoughtfully.

The participants of your focus group have a huge effect on the quality of your results. Be thoughtful in who you choose, considering the number of participants, your goals for the focus group, and the participants’ characteristics.

For each focus group session, you should recruit between 7 and 12 participants. To ensure the right number of people show up, confirm roughly 15. Groups of a dozen or fewer tend to interact well with one another, engaging each individual and giving them a chance to build on others’ ideas.

Of course, groups need the right participants. The first step in your search is to delineate what you want to learn. This will guide you through such questions as: “Do I want people who are already using the product?” “Do I want people who haven’t ever thought about my product before?” “Do I want people who have defected—people who once used my product or service but have moved on, perhaps to a competitor?”

The second step is to clarify desirable demographics. Think about gender, age, educational attainment, income, geographical location and even such personal attachments as religious or political affiliations. Being clear on the characteristics your ideal participants should possess is critical. I often ask clients, “If I could deliver you the ideal one person right now that you would like to talk to, who would it be?”

Once you’ve identified potential participants, the next step is to screen them. Commonly, this involves requesting that they complete a short survey to confirm that they are who they say they are and that they’re interested and available to contribute. In my experience, only about 50 percent of the people who say they’re ready, willing and able to join a focus group actually do, so the screening step is important.


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Tip #3: Avoid divergent perspectives.

In a focus group, you are looking to go deeper—to explore potentially fruitful lines of thought and conversation as fully as possible. In general, this means you want to avoid recruiting participants whose perspectives on or experiences with your brand significantly diverge.

One challenge associated with working with groups whose participants have divergent perspectives is that the same questions may not be equally relevant to all. Say, for example, you’re interested in a product’s user experience. The questions you have for users will not apply to non-users. You may be interested in conducting a focus group with non-users who are considering purchasing the product, but this group conversation will be completely different from the user-group conversation.

A second challenge of working with a varied group is that when participants’ experiences or perspectives on a given product or service are at odds, a conversation can descend into unproductive disagreement or outright conflict.

If you want the perspectives of divergent groups, instead of placing them in the same session, host multiple sessions with different focuses.

Tip #4: Compensate participants.

Participants should always be compensated in some way, shape or form. Not only does it encourage them to show up, but it also reassures them that you value their time and their feedback. Remember: You want both their attention and their input. Knowing they can expect to be compensated once the session has concluded will keep them present and engaged for the duration.

In most cases, compensation should be commensurate with participants’ level of interest. Consumers who are highly involved with your product or process may be eager to participate in a focus group. To these participants, compensation may be relatively unimportant, and you can offer them less without compromising your results. On the other hand, if consumers whose feedback is important to you have little or no interest in joining your focus group, you’ll need to pay them more.

Determining the right level of compensation may involve some back-and-forth with potential participants. Talk to individuals in your target group. Soon enough, they’ll make their expectations clear.

Tip #5: Go online.

When you think of a focus group, you probably imagine participants gathered in a room around a table, but there are actually many benefits to holding focus groups online instead.

First, online focus groups are far cheaper to facilitate than in-person ones. In 1998, I founded iResearch, an insights platform that helps brands facilitate online focus groups, for this very reason. I had many clients who wanted to run focus groups, but they simply couldn’t afford to. By eliminating the need to provide a venue and catering, online focus groups were a more accessible option.

I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical about whether online focus groups would be as effective as in-person ones. Over time, though, I’ve actually found them preferable in many ways. 

Most notably, where traditional focus groups cannot afford the protection of anonymity, online focus groups can. Even an online focus group’s moderator can remain ignorant of exactly who the participants are. This anonymity tends to make online participants more honest. They typically use language that is more direct, and they’ll often provide more emotion-based information. Plus, participants often put more thought into written responses than they do into spoken ones

In-person focus groups have their advantages as well (like the ability to read body language), but I’ve found that, for most companies, online focus groups work just as well if not better.

Listen, listen, listen.

People want to feel heard. Your customers are no different. The No. 1 thing you can do to ensure an effective focus group is simply to listen

The whole point of focus groups is to glean insights from your customers. Regardless of what you’re trying to gain from a given conversation or whom you’re having it with, you must remember to listen. You cannot learn from your audience members by talking at them. So follow these tips to set yourself up for success, then sit back and listen. You just might uncover the information you need to take your brand to the next level.

This article was adapted from “Getting to Aha!” available on Amazon.


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