So You want to do a Focus Group?
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So You want to do a Focus Group?

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Investigating focus groups as a research alternative, thinking about moderating, or looking for material to teach about focus groups, read on and copy what's valuable!

Investigating focus groups as a research alternative, thinking about moderating, or looking for material to teach about focus groups, read on and copy what's valuable!

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  • Let’s talk about “homogenous.” Many of my clients attempted to have us recruit at least one of each of their target audience with the aspirational goal of attempting to have representation from each segment. It’s a nice goal and indeed, you often can enrich the discussion. Just be sure to gently and frequently remind your client that the one individual in the room representing audience segment A may not represent the opinions of the majority of segment A, or B for B, etc. Recruiting for the right demographics and psychographics does not ensure that the majority of opinion is represented – that’s what quantitative research is for!
  • You might be surprised at the topics that are actually permissive in focus groups. Some of my first groups were conducted on topics regarding end-of-life and palliative care. Every respondent in the room had lost a friend or relative. It was a fast-bonding group and one of the richest group discussions I would ever moderate.
  • Let’s say you are in college admissions and want to understand the experiences, positive and negative, of prospective students. Chances are, you have a whole class of recent prospective students you can use to obtain that information. Short on cash? Pizza is cheap and pursued by most college entrants. It’s okay to use incentives – really. Some will tell you that to ensure feedback is consistent that you should never, I mean never, use two+ moderators on a project. Rubbish! Focus groups are not quantitative. They should not be designed up front to be representative. Yes, moderators will have different styles and probing techniques – but that really should enrich the feedback versus detract from it. I’ve been on several projects where we had three groups being moderated simultaneously covering the same topics – buy me a drink & I’ll tell you more. These are good stories as we were lodged at a vineyard hotel over the course of 2.5 weeks!
  • Over-defining: This is a great temptation. It’s okay to establish quotas, but they should be “about” quotas. About half should be male/female; about 1/3 unemployed, you see the pattern. You will be tempted, no matter how many times you read this, to make your group fully representative of all the characteristics of your population. It won’t hurt your focus group. You must decide whether it will help much – over-defining with lots of quotas will make the incidence of your group go done. The lower the incidence, the harder to recruit, and the more it costs to recruit. If your looking to recruit a population with a combined incidence in the geographic area of only 10%, expect to pay big bucks as that is a lot of people to contact to find the needle and encourage the needle to come talk to you.
  • Tips from the field: You want to talk with hard-core (motorcycle) bikers? They will bring their significant others into the room – they will insist on it. Let them come in! You want to talk to actively breast-feeding mothers? It’s quite likely they will need to bring their babies – be equipped to have caregivers & facilities to accommodate. Bottom line: Think about what is going on with the population your are bringing in to talk to.
  • The benefit to using a focus group facility to do your recruit is that they will know the “show-up” rates in the area. Rates differ by geography and they also differ by topic. Generally, show-up rates are higher for topics that are more controversial, more self-defining (muscle cars, fashion), or generally more interesting because people want to talk/share. Another benefit to focus group facilities: they share their list of focus group attendees periodically to scan for individuals who are attempting to make a living by attending focus groups (the incentives).
  • “ We’ve been using this moderator for years . . .” Problem is, when the moderator is too expert on the product/service/situation, sometimes s/he interprets the responses within his/her own blinders. One of the worst focus groups I witnessed was the moderator who finished the sentences for the respondents. Not good.
  • Kitchen sink questions: the questions the client wants to add preceded by the phrase: “Since we have all these people gathered here, why don’t we ask . Resist! (If there is time at the end, and there rarely is, ask those questions then – but don’t include them in the official moderator’s guide as it becomes expectation.)
  • Admit that someone is watching. Most suspect it. All will forget about it – unless of course the backroom gets rowdy. I have stories on this one too.
  • I have a relatively soft voice, but I am nearly 6 feet tall. Attempt to bully me or the other members of my focus group, and I simply stand up and moderate from behind you for a bit – with my hand placed on your shoulder to gently stop you from dominating the conversation. My colleague gets a drink of water while you’re talking & then stands behind you. Slightly different techniques. Both work well.
  • I have found that direct quotes & video clips are most effective as supporting evidence for my conclusions. This moves the presentation from “the consultant’s report” to “our customer’s” feedback.” A great strategy when your consultant’s report is a hard one to deliver.
  • Don’t think focus groups (phone-recruited) can be fast? Routinely at the advertising agency a problem with the creative or business pitch was found at 4p on Monday & we had groups to identify it on Tuesday with a summary memo on the creative director’s desk before the clock struck 1:00am on Wednesday. Yup – that was the life!
  • What’s that with the chips? Ever listen to a video/audio tape trying to discern what a respondent is hearing and all you can hear is the chip bag rustling? Get the chips out of the bag at the start of the group! And oh yes, resist your temptation as a moderator (or one-on-one interviewer) to say ‘uh-huh.’ It’s not only annoying to listen to on play-back, but if you want to cut it for an audio clip, well, it’s also annoying for the client to listen to. Practice nodding your head – and stay silent.
  • If you have some raucous backroom observers, you might consider a “backroom moderator” too. This person can “manage” the backroom & also provide feedback for your report. Good luck!

So You want to do a Focus Group? So You want to do a Focus Group? Presentation Transcript

  • Updated 2011
    • Defining focus groups
    • Typical characteristics of focus groups
    • When to use focus groups
    • When not to use focus groups
    • Types of focus groups
    • Key steps in focus group research
    • Strengths and limitations
    • Practical Tips
    • Carefully planned discussion designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment. Like a small, temporary community
    • Discussion is “focused” by the goals of the researcher
    • Individuals involved are mostly homogenous – not typically meant for representativeness or generalization but for in-depth information
    • Doesn’t assume people have a set opinion
    • Primary (stand-alone) data collection
    • Qualitative complement to quantitative investigation
    • A first or second step in quantitative investigation
      • Either to help in development of the quantitative phase or to follow up on interesting/surprising results
    • What are the important issues or questions?
    • How do people talk about them?
    • What language do they use?
    • What concepts are salient?
    • In surveys specifically (Morgan, 1997):
      • Capturing all the domains that need to be measured
      • Determining the dimensions that make up each of these domains
      • Providing item wordings that effectively convey the researcher’s intent to survey respondents
    • Permissive environment
      • Moderator not in a position of power
      • Mostly homogenous group
      • Pre-session interaction
    • Tape/video recorded and notes
    • Purpose of the study is disclosed
    • Salty and sugary snacks
    • When group interaction is desirable
    • When “how” and “why” questions are more important than “whether” or “how much”
    • When you seek contextual responses rather than simple yes/no responses
    • When understanding of the complexity of behaviors and attitudes is sought
    • When you need statistical data, yes/no answers, or rated, scaled responses –focus groups do not yield quantitative data
    • When trust cannot be established
    • When free expression of participants can’t be ensured
    • When confidentiality is critical but can’t be protected
    • When participants have problems with social aspect of group participation (topic is very sensitive or personal!)
    • Traditional focus groups
      • Face-to-face meetings, 8-12 participants, about 2 hours, 1 moderator
    • Mini focus groups
      • 4-6 participants, similar to traditional groups in other respects
      • Triads
    • Telephone/Video focus groups
      • Telephone conference call, 6-10 participants, slightly shorter (1 - 1.5 hours)
    • Online focus groups
      • Web site access/facilitation, varied number of participants and session length, moderated via web interface
    • Use of volunteers – “opinions for pizza”
    • Two moderators
    • Repeated focus groups
    • Side-note on incentives:
      • “ Paying for opinions equals bad opinions” mentality – not really
      • Cash is king – but donations sometimes more appropriate
    • Determine objective(s) of research
    • Determine recruitment approach
    • Develop participant profile
    • Design screening instrument
    • Develop discussion guide to support research objectives
    • Recruit participants and form groups
    • Conduct focus groups
    • Analyze feedback (tapes, notes, etc.)
    • Write report
    • What do you want to learn?
    • What action will you be able to take after results are in?
      • Important for developing the participant profile/screener
      • Dictates the moderators guide
      • Is the outline for the report
    • Need to define your population
      • Including: geographic location, age, race, other characteristics of interest
        • Women, age 40+, with 2+ children in HH, who work full-time
        • Males, age 24-32, with a particular view/attitude/heath condition, etc.
    • Be careful of “over-defining” the population
      • False sense of representation
      • More definition = lower incidence = $$$
    • What is your desired group composition, size and how many groups will you have?
    • What kind of screening questions should be asked? (see population definition)
    • How will you group people?
      • Demographically
      • By attitude
      • Spouses – together or separate groups or both?
    • Decisions should be based on your research goals
    • Strangers vs. non-strangers
    • Homogeneity of group is threatened by an “expert”
      • Need to know specific characteristics and any pre-existing relationships before deciding who to include
    • Typical guidelines:
      • Size 8-12 (some say 7-10)
      • Homogenous (all male/female, similar ages, no authorities, free to speak)
        • Be careful – too much homogeneity can thwart group dynamics
      • 1-2 moderators – often bring someone in from the outside, depending on topic
    • How will you recruit? Professional recruiter or ads?
    • Where will you place the ads?
    • How much and what kind of information will you put in the ad? With what consequence?
    • How many people will you recruit ?
      • The “show-up” rate
    • Need to start recruiting well in advance to ensure that you get enough people in each group (the “right” people)
    • Be aware of “professional” focus group members
    • Basic moderator tasks:
    • Introduce purpose and goals of group (create non-threatening environment)
    • Instruct participants about the process
    • Direct discussion
      • Ensure that group keeps on track
      • Active, balanced participation
    • Probe and motivate responses
    • All guidelines are set forth in a Moderator Guide (that begins with the research objective)
    • Moderating is a skill – good moderator’s listen more than they talk! They understand group and individual behavior
    • The moderator guide should not look like a survey!
      • Should be mostly open-ended questions and not too many questions overall
      • Questions should be relatively short (not wordy)
      • Do include probes
    • Questions should motivate the participants to think about what they feel, think, or believe – questions and answers shouldn’t feel “mechanical”
    • Keep it short & push back on “kitchen sink” questions
    • Guide should build up to the payload question(s) so group has built momentum and comfort
    • Types (order) of questions – General to Specific
    • Intro – yes, you’re being taped & there are people behind the window
      • Poll: Who has participated in groups in the past?
      • I will gently move us forward – take permission to interrupt
    • Opening question
      • An “Ice Breaker” that everyone can answer – but make it relevant to the topic & not yes/no or corny!
    • Introductory questions – these are the “plants”
    • Transition questions
    • Key questions
    • Ending questions
      • All things considered
      • Summary
      • Final thoughts
    • Encourage interaction, not “serial interviewing” (e.g., going around the room and having one person answer after the other) – build on opinion
    • But, beware of the shy – they attend focus groups too
      • Good technique, especially at start of group: write down reactions/answers then read aloud
    • Bullies come too – but moderators rule
      • Standing – subtle but effective
      • The “drink of water” technique
      • Kind but firm direction
    • Projection techniques
      • What other opinions do you hear are out there?
      • Especially for teens: What are your friends saying/doing?
    • Flips-charts – effective for in-group and feedback analysis (the report)
      • Ask group to help you summarize, rank-order, prioritize, etc.
      • Good for transition
      • Good for back-up if recording equipment fails (yes, it happens)
    • Respondent materials – collect their notes
      • Might help with analysis
      • Bigger issue is that notes don’t end up in next group’s hands (or in industry, with a competitor)
    • Avoid questions that impose assumptions or that are leading or misleading
    • Avoid supplying response options
      • But playing devil’s advocate is effective!
    • Ask only one question at a time
    • Don’t ask “yes/no” questions (“Do you…”)
      • Instead: “How much do you…” or “Describe for me…”
    • Make it interesting
    • Activities/techniques that might be used:
    • Paper and pencil exercises
      • 2-minute paper
      • “ Top of mind” exercises
      • Create personal ads for product/service
    • Projective Techniques
      • Describe object of interest as something else (e.g., describe the University as an animal)
    • Designing utopia – the perfect world
    • Tradeoff analyses
    • Sentence completions
      • E.g., “I was surprised that…”
    • Transcript-based
    • Tape-based
    • Note-based
    • Memory-based (bad idea unless you’re really good)
    • Analysis must be systematic
    • Presentation to clients: Report and/or oral/multi-media
    • Be careful on the terms you use – stay away from quantitative language
    • Use of direct quotes, video clips, pictures
    • Good resource for things like how to set up the room, what kind of facility to use, etc.
    • Depends on aims/context
    • Sample – larger than interviews, smaller than survey; particular rather than representative
    • Time needed
    • Moderator, respondent, and group effects all come into play
    • Different for different applications (sometimes the focus group isn’t the best strategy)
    • "As we look ahead to the next presidential debate, we urge journalists to pay special attention to how they portray the results of focus groups and other instant measures of voters' reactions to the debate," said Murray Edelman, president of AAPOR. "All too often, journalists will state correctly that the results of such samples are not scientific, then go ahead and report them and analyze them as though they were."
    • Recruiting problems? Check your holidays.
    • Establish yourself as a gentle boss
    • Cell phones off or on vibrate
    • Serving chips? Get them out of the bag!
    • Be sure you (as moderator) aren’t voicing understanding (uh-huh) while respondents are talking
    • Establish ‘trust’ by voicing your impartiality to the subject; you are only the messenger
    • Don’t over-dress – unless you need to dominate
    • Respondent’s say the silliest things – “that’s an interesting point” becomes a frequent statement
    • Don’t let one topic/point dominate or be over-discussed – firmly move things along
    • Need to get a respondent out of the room? – “Mr. Jones, you have a call . . .”
    • Back-room –
      • Check periodically with observers
      • When group responses don’t jive with initial hypothesis
        • Wrong respondents? Usually not!
      • Summarize conclusions to major questions prior to disbanding
        • Moderate the observers also!
        • What did observers hear?
    • Participant population – think about recruiting implications:
      • Time of day for groups
      • Who might show up with respondents (kids, parents, significant others, etc.)
      • Dietary issues