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How to Create a Focus Group for Better Market Research

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One of the most challenging parts of market research is getting information from prospective customers. Before you even design your first flyer or buy your first ad, you need to know your target market’s wants, opinions, and hesitations. 

What are focus groups in business
A focus group is a group that you gather to discuss anything relevant to your business. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

Focus group discussions can help you accomplish this. They can help bring out a lot of information that your target customers might be hesitant to bring up, as well as give you valuable feedback. These types of results are difficult to achieve online or via a survey. 

In this tutorial, we'll explore the question of what is a focus group. We'll also provide you with a focus groups definitions that works in business situations. We'll discuss the benefits and challenges of running a focus group. Finally, you'll learn how to plan and set up a focus group for your business.

What Is a Focus Group?

It's not hard to come up with a focus group definition. Simply put, a focus group is a group of people that you gather and lead to a guided discussion. This discussion could be about anything relevant to your business, whether you’re assessing their needs or getting feedback on a specific product. Here are other situations when a focus group can come in handy:

  • Needs analysis. If you’re at an earlier stage of your business where you don’t understand your target audience very well, a focus group can give you a good starting point of what their needs are.
  • Input on new products and services. You can also use focus groups to get early feedback on new products and services. In these cases, it’s best to bring a prototype or samples of your new products for your focus group to try. This can help you spot problems and opportunities before you publicly release your new products.
  • Competitive analysis. If you want to know how your business compares to competitors, a focus group can also help. You can ask them to compare products, marketing materials to find any areas where your competitor has the advantage.
  • Branding or marketing feedback. Testing out new slogans or posters? Your focus group can give you feedback about which marketing materials they respond to.
  • Testing a business idea. You can also use focus groups very early into the business development stage. If you already have a target audience you want to make products for but don’t know where to start, a focus group can help you narrow down your options.
  • Filling in some gaps in understanding your target market. Even if you believe you know your target market really well, there might be some choices or behaviors you won’t understand. For example, they might say they want a specific type of product but once you offer it, they’re not really buying. A focus group can help you better understand complex questions and situations like these.

These are only a few scenarios where focus groups can help. If you find that your business needs to resolve any of the above situations, a focus group might be right for you.

The Benefits of Focus Groups for Small Businesses

While it’s possible to get feedback and test new ideas through other methods, using focus groups has some unique benefits:

1. Non-verbal Communication

This is where focus groups really have the advantage. Unlike online discussions or surveys that rely too much on written input, focus groups will allow you to read into non-verbal communication. We're often unaware of the non-verbal cues and behaviors we’re displaying, so it’s no surprise that survey respondents can’t include these in their written answers. 

With focus groups, you’ll be able to note things like which items or elements catches the participants’ eyes, which topics they appear hesitant to talk about, and which topics excite them the most.  

2. Open Discussions

Survey formats tend to be limiting. It’s usually difficult to assess essay-type questions, so most questions are multiple choice. Focus group discussions, on the other hand, tend to be more open. This allows you to discover more qualitative information about what your customers need.

You can also ask questions that are as broad or as specific as you like. For example, if you’re setting up a wedding planning business, you can start with a broad question such as, “What’s the most challenging part of planning your wedding?” Then, once participants give an answer, you can ask them to compare it to other challenges they’ve encountered or to react to the answers of other people in the group.

The discussion format also makes it easy to get follow up information, such as asking participants to clarify an answer or to elaborate on a point. 

Because of the open nature of focus group discussions, they inevitably reveal information that’s unlikely to be found in surveys and other market research methods.

3. Getting Suggestions

You can also ask your focus group for concrete suggestions. They’re in the best position to know which changes would improve their experience with your product or business.

Keep in mind that you shouldn’t follow all their suggestions to the letter. Instead, try to figure out the intention behind the suggestion. As follow up questions such as, “Why do you think this change will be an improvement?” or “How much would this change improve your experience?” Their answers will let you identify what the real problems are. Plus, you’ll know whether a suggestion is worth pursuing or not.

Challenges of Running a Focus Group

Just because focus group discussions have the above benefits, it doesn’t mean that they don’t come with their own disadvantages. Here are some challenges you might encounter when running a focus group, as well as some suggestions on how to overcome them:

1. Cost

Since focus groups involve getting many people together at a venue, it comes with some cost. This can include rental of a conference room, snacks or fees for the participants, or the fee of a professional moderator. Businesses with little capital or that have small margins might have a hard time justifying an investment in a focus group.

One way to offset cost is to keep the focus groups as short as possible. While it may take 10 to 15 minutes for your participants to warm up, a well-moderated discussion doesn’t have to be longer than 90 minutes. You can also opt for an online focus group, which lessens the cost for transportation or facility rental.

2. Logistics

Any gathering of multiple people requires extensive planning and coordination — especially if you've got a specific business objective you want to reach. Apart from identifying your focus group’s objective and figuring out how to reach it, you also need to find participants, assess how well they fit your target market, scheduling venues, providing assistance to facilitators and participants, and so on.

All these tasks can seem overwhelming for a small business owner. Because of this, don’t commit to doing a focus group that's larger or more complicated than needed. 

3. Getting accurate and consistent results

The open discussions in focus groups tend to require additional analysis to turn them into insights that are useful for business. Also, since focus groups are small, it’s possible that you’ll get very different results across several focus groups.

Because of this, focus groups best serve your business during the discovery phase — when you’re trying to figure out some answers to complex questions. If you’re trying to spot more quantitative and scientific information such as consumer trends, then you’ll be better off using surveys and other more rigorous research methods.

How to Create Useful Focus Groups for Your Business

Before you even plan your focus group, you need to have a strong marketing plan. Having a marketing plan can help you ensure that your focus group is headed in the right direction. If you don’t have a marketing plan yet, the following guides can walk you through the process:

Once you've got your marketing plan in place, you'll know which goals you'll need help with — whether it's needs analysis, competitive analysis, input on new products, marketing feedback, or to get to know your target market better. From this, you can start planning how to conduct a focus group that fits.

1. Choose Your Participants

After setting your focus group goals, one of the things you need to figure out is how many participants you need, as well as how to find and choose participants.

Focus groups typically have 8 to 12 members. This size keeps the discussion manageable, while providing enough variety. You can find people to participate in your focus groups through the following ways:

  • Your customer list. If you already have a list of customers or leads, it's best to start from there. This can save you a lot of time in looking for participants, since you're starting with a list of people who've already transacted with your business in some way. Also, people who've already shown interest in your business will be more likely to help you out for a small fee. But if you're doing your focus group discussions to tap into a new market, it's best to try other methods instead.
  • Referrals. You can ask friends, family, and customers to refer participants in your focus group. Be upfront with them about the target market you're looking for and what the purpose of the focus group is. 
  • Events. Take advantage of events that your target audience is likely to attend. For example, if you're selling web design services to dentists, look for conferences, seminars, and other events for that group. You can either attend the event as a guest, sponsor it, or coordinate with the hosts. Events have the added benefit of having members of your target audience in the same location at the same time. There would be no need to coordinate schedules or worry about other logistics.
  • Post Ads. You can also post ads asking people to apply to your focus group. This will give you a broader pool of candidates to choose from. The challenge would be in ensuring that your selected participants really fall under your target market.

Although a focus group should be as diverse as possible, it’s important to make sure that every participant is part of your target market. For example, if your business is catering to stay-at-home parents in your city, choose participants from different parts of the city, belong to different age ranges, and have different backgrounds. This ensures that you’ll get a variety of perspectives during your discussion. 

Still, keep in mind that in diverse groups, individuals don't represent their age range, neighborhood, or culture. Don’t assume that every participant in your focus group is representative of an entire population.

2. Plan the Discussion

Apart from acquiring participants, you also need to plan for the discussion that will take place. Here’s what a fruitful focus group discussion looks like:

  • Starts with a good overview. It'll take your participants a few minutes to warm up. Use this time to welcome them to discussion, provide an overview of what the discussion is for, and set up some ground rules.
  • Has a clear progression.  A good focus group has a strong train of thought that doesn’t get derailed regardless of the input of the participants. While some participants might give unnecessarily exhaustive input, the discussion is always refocused to fulfill the focus group’s purpose. The usual approach is to start with a generic question and get more specific from there. 
  • Contains open questions. While multiple-choice questions are easier to understand, these are best left for surveys and other customer research methods that are farther down the road. Focus groups tend to work best in an exploratory fashion, so your questions should be exploratory as well. Let's say you're testing a new dating app. Instead of asking, "Would you be interested in using this dating app?" ask them, "How have you tried online dating in the past?" and follow up with "How did these methods work for you?" By asking these open questions, you can find additional opportunities and insight that you wouldn't have come up with if you had made assumptions about your participants' options.
  • Allows for concrete answers. Participants should also be given a chance to provide more involved answers such as examples, scale ratings, memories, and reflections. This will help you understand the deeper insights that lead them to their conclusions and opinions. For example, instead of just asking the participants what they felt about your new logo designs, ask "What does it remind you of?" or ask them to rank your proposed designs according to their preference.

If your focus group discussion has the above criteria, you'll have a wealth of data that can help you make better business decisions.

3. Opt for Experienced Moderation

Focus groups shouldn’t be like typical informal group conversations. Depending on your goal, you need to ensure that the discussion leads you to the outcome you need. This is where a moderator comes in. The moderator can make participants comfortable enough to contribute, facilitate discussions, and ask follow-up questions that lead participants to fulfill the purpose of your discussion.

If you’ve never attended or watched a focus group discussion, it might be best to hire a professional to handle this part for you. Based on research published in the Communications of the Association for Information Systems, here’s what makes for successful moderation:

  • Gets information from participants. Drawing out a person’s genuine opinions takes skill, and a good moderator has this. They're able to understand the purpose of your focus group and convert it to lines of questioning that will able to elicit useful responses.
  • Facilitates interaction and discussion. Good moderators are able to prompt a group discussion even from people who are typically reserved and are able to make them feel safe enough to express their opinions even without the consensus of the group. At the same time, the moderator is able to refocus the group in instances when some participants might dominate the conversation, or the discussion gets derailed in some way.
  • No display of judgment or bias. Another key characteristic of a good moderator is that they don’t deliberately or accidentally skew the results of your focus group. They remain reserved about their own ideas and refrain from offering their opinions on the participants’ responses. 

Given their role, moderators can determine the success of your focus group. Because of this, it's important to find someone who has experience conducting focus groups, especially for businesses.

Use Focus Groups in Your Business

Despite the cost and effort it takes to run a successful focus group, the rewards are valuable for business. You'll have a more fleshed-out understanding of your market, which will lead to more persuasive marketing materials that your target audience will relate to. Because of these potential gains, you need to make sure that your focus group discussions are open and well-moderated. Now that you've learned about focus groups, you're ready to decide whether to use them for your own business. 

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