Learn what goes into planning a focus group that can help you find the business answers you need.
Focus groups have become a buzzword of sorts in the entrepreneurial realm. Companies form such groups in hopes of learning more about their consumer base—what they think, what products they like, and ultimately, what they might buy. We sat down with some local experts and picked their brain about focus groups—what factors go into forming such a group, what things to avoid, what to look for and how to organize the end results.
What makes a good focus group?
Phillip Lewis, chair of the Department of Marketing and Business Information Systems at Rowan University in Glassboro, says having the right mix of respondents in a focus group requires people to be “of equal power and social standing at the table.
“There has to be a free exchange of ideas, and the moderator has to watch the group because some of the things that are communicated are nonverbal,” he says. “Do they come to conclusions as a group that they didn’t bring to the table initially?”
Watching a good focus group being conducted is one of those things that you know when you see it, Lewis says. If the moderator is directing the conversation and throwing out ideas more often than the people in the group, that’s a red flag. If one respondent is dominating the conversation, a moderator should temper that response somewhat. How ideas and opinions are generated within the group dynamics is important as well, Lewis notes.
“If somebody says [something like] ‘The service at Starbucks is awful,’ and other people chime in, it’s sort of a commonly held belief,” he says. “If they just sort of nod, then it was socially appropriate to agree.”
Finding the right partner
Kristen Robeson, director of Blueberry, the consulting division of the Marlton-based Reckner agency, says a good moderator is really a consultative partner who understands the business, objectives, and challenges of his or her clients, and what specific questions to ask to achieve those aims.
“In general, the moderator should be considered a partner,” she says. “The moderator’s going to be writing the discussion guide and the screening criteria that determines who is going to be in the focus group.”
When selecting a moderator, Robeson suggests a few criteria. Credentials, including membership in a professional group like the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, or a certificate from a training institute such as RIVA or Burke, are indicators of ability. References, while valuable, may not always be available, she says, because market researchers often work with companies that compete in the same spaces.
If clients don’t have such training, Robeson adds, that’s not necessarily reason to overlook them, since many people have had internal training within their company.
As important as finding a good moderator is sourcing the right location in which to conduct a focus group, Robeson says, because the facility is “95 percent of the time doing the actual recruiting of the [group] respondents” from its internal databases. In addition to its recruitment base, a facility should also be located in or around the geographic area in which the company is looking to study its customers.
“You want to make sure the facility is within 20 minutes of the area that has the demographic you’re looking for,” Robeson says. “If you’re talking to a local client who has team members flying in, you might want to have something that’s easy to get to from the airport. If you want to talk to moms and kids, you probably don’t want to go to Center City Philadelphia [for travel reasons].”
For a reliable directory of research facilities, Robeson recommends The Impulse Survey of Focus Facilities, an annual quality rating of focus group discussion and viewing facilities published by Impulse Research Corporation, which surveys an estimated 5,000 moderators who rate facilities worldwide.
Groups can run anywhere from two to three hours, she says, and “the respondents are usually shocked how quickly it goes.
“I never do only an hour for a group, unless it’s a really bizarre situation,” Robeson says. “It’s usually not enough time to go over your ground rules, get everyone to introduce themselves, and get into the topic.
“A good moderator will know how to build in activities that are productive but also keep the respondents engaged.”
How Much it Costs
Budgeting for each group is also a consideration, Robeson says, noting that, in general, a session can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 to conduct, from the recruitment of customers to the synthesis of the research gathered. She also suggests holding a minimum of three groups. One is necessary to gather baseline research, she says, and if a second contradicts the findings of the first, a third “tie-breaker” could be necessary.
The cost also varies depending upon the number of people recruited for each group, Robeson says. She recommends inviting eight, expecting six will show up; more than that limits the group dynamic, because there’s not enough time for everyone to talk.
When done well, focus groups can provide valuable consumer insight. But sometimes, experts say, they simply aren’t done well.
“A lot of people do focus groups without doing them well,” Lewis says. “It’s just a way of confirming your conventional wisdom when done poorly.”
Getting participants to actually show up can be another potential issue. Sometimes, Robeson says, she will recruit nine respondents in the hopes of six arriving. If more than the required number arrive, that gives the group moderator the opportunity to select or exclude respondents to fine-tune the likelihood of getting better information—which doesn’t mean stacking the deck with people you only think will tell the client what he or she wants to hear.
“A good moderator will also teach them to be good consumers of the research,” Robeson says. “Sometimes there will be someone you don’t like or disagree with, and it’s teaching them not to disregard them. They may be saying [something] about the product the client knows isn’t true, but in the end, it’s all about perception.”
Interpreting the results
Finally, when the group has wrapped, the moderator is also responsible for synthesizing the results of the research. Styles of presenting that information will vary, Robeson says, and that’s another area in which moderators can differentiate themselves. Rather than prepare “a long Word document,” Blueberry tries to show the results visually, using product images and other details “to get cross-functional teams aligned.”
“You definitely want to have clarity with what came out of the research,” Robeson says. “It’s really good to have a moderator who’s a good report-writer and who can do that for you. Our typical project is about six focus groups and we always budget 40 hours of reporting time for that.”
The other danger in absorbing the research collected in a focus group, Lewis says, is that even positive feedback can be misinterpreted. People can respond to a new idea as seeming attractive without having any real intention of ever purchasing or using such a product.
“Often companies start off with technology that can solve a problem, and people don’t see that they have a problem that needs to be solved,” he says. “Offering a technology that can solve a problem that people don’t recognize as a problem is a failure.”
The risk in all research is that the researchers “aren’t objective enough,” Lewis says; that they may influence the results of the survey with their own opinions. Because focus groups are a form of qualitative research, they can lend themselves to bias based on the interpretation. That distinction, however, is also what differentiates them from big data, quantitative research.
“Everything you do online now is being stored somewhere and people are analyzing it,” Lewis says. “At the same time, there’s lots of this opinion-driven research going on, and focus groups really do play a big role on product generation, testing new products, evaluating those concepts.
“Focus groups can be very useful in building services and understanding where you’re falling short in delivering services, because people’s experiences will vary from what you believe they should,” he says.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 4, Issue 8 (August, 2014).
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