Focus groups can be an incredibly valuable tool for market research and product development

The basic idea is to gather a group of people (about six or more) in a neutral location and lead them through a productive discussion. Discussions shouldn’t be longer than 90 minutes. After that, people tend to get tired and lose interest. 

The goal is to generate ideas, record reactions, and discover motivations. It’s perfect if you’re releasing a new product, building a brand image, or trying to figure out how to appeal to a certain demographic

Why use focus groups?

As a research tool, focus groups are particularly useful because they’re relatively cheap and they let you talk directly to the public, allowing you to dive much deeper than questionnaires and surveys. 

At the same time, focus groups also have their limitations. You can only ever prompt and record discussion – focus groups can’t tell you anything about actual customer behaviour. In other words, the data you collect, while useful, shouldn’t be taken as gospel. 

If you’re thinking about running a focus group for your business, here are some handy tips to conduct a healthy and productive session:

  • Set clear goals
  • Find the right people
  • Do a test run
  • Make sure everybody’s comfortable
  • Stay in control
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Don’t do everything yourself

Set clear goals

If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, you probably won’t find anything very useful. 

Before you conduct your focus group, you should be able to answer these questions:

  • What are you trying to find out?
  • Why does it matter?
  • How are you going to do it?

It may sound obvious, but having a clear set of goals when you go in will help you properly guide the group and provoke meaningful discussions. 

Find the right people

When it comes to focus groups, some people’s opinions will be more valuable to you than others. 

It all depends on the kind of information you’re trying to find out. For example, if your product is aimed toward younger demographics, you’ll want younger participants.

Or maybe your product is aimed at all age groups, but you want to see how intuitive they find the design. In that case, it might be better to have an equal spread, or maybe even conduct multiple focus groups for different ages. 

Once you’ve figured out the right demographics for your focus group, you need to find them. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to reach people:

  • Contact existing customers
  • Advertise on social media
  • Buy public ads – like billboards, public transport, or newspapers

Remember, you should focus your search methods based on the demographic you’re looking for. 

For example, you’re more likely to find younger audiences on social media sites like Instagram and Tik Tok. But if you’re looking for older professionals, LinkedIn might be a better choice. 

Do a test run

Even the best plans can go off-course, so do a couple of test runs of your focus group using some friends or colleagues. 

One of your biggest issues will be timing. When you have a room full of people talking openly, you can never be sure where the conversation will go or how long it will take. 

A test run will give you a better idea of timings. Prioritise your main talking point that you absolutely must get through, and make sure there’s plenty of time for them. 

Another reason for test running is to catch any potential problems with the questions themselves. What seems obvious to you may not seem obvious to others, so getting a second opinion will help you avoid things like:

  • Confusing wording
  • Industry jargon
  • Potentially contentious or offensive questions

Make sure everybody’s comfortable

People are much more likely to open up and give their honest opinions if they’re in a safe and comfortable environment. A happy and contented focus group will lead to the best results for your focus group. 

There are a few simple things you can do to make people feel comfortable:

  • Host your focus group in a nice room – quiet, warm, with plenty of natural light and comfortable furniture
  • Introduce yourself to everybody individually when they arrive
  • Ask everybody to introduce themselves to one another when you begin
  • Provide name stickers – it’s just easier for everybody
  • Supply snacks and drinks – avoid loud things like crisps, so they don’t ruin your sound recording
  • Make sure your recording equipment is out of the way – people don’t feel comfortable when they’re too aware they’re being recorded

If you’ve got the time and you think your group might be a little shy, you could try a short ice-breaker activity. The name and a fact game is an easy one to get people chatting:

Starting with you, introduce yourself and a fact or opinion, for example:

  • I’m Sue, I enjoy sailing

Then, have the next person introduce you, before introducing themself, like this:

  • This is Sue, she enjoys sailing 
  • I’m James, I play the piano

Then, the next person introduces themself and the two before:

  • This is Sue, she enjoys sailing
  • This is James, he plays the piano
  • I’m Kirsty, I ride a motorcycle

Keep going round until everybody’s finished. It sounds simple, but it’s a great way to get everybody loosened up. And it’ll help people remember names!

Stay in control

As the group moderator, it’s your job to keep the conversation moving in a productive way. There are two main ways things can go off-track:

  1. People talking too much
  2. People not talking enough

A thriving conversation is great, and there will always be some who are more chatty than others, but you need to make sure a few participants don’t dominate the conversation. 

Don’t be afraid to politely interrupt if you feel this happening or if the conversation is moving in a less useful direction. If there are shy members of your group, ask them for their opinion directly. 

Remember, you’re in charge, and you have limited time. It’s up to you to make sure the conversation is productive. 

As the moderator, you also need to remain impartial. Encourage participation and discussion, but don’t agree with or favour one person’s contribution more than another’s. 

Ask open-ended questions

One surefire way to shut down conversation is with leading “yes or no” questions – there’s just not much to say afterwards. 

Instead, ask open, opinion-based questions. 

For example, don’t ask:

  • Did you like/dislike this product?

Instead, ask:

  • What did you like/dislike about it?

If you feel like you must ask a “yes or no” question, make sure you always have a follow-up question to get them to expand on their answer. 

Don’t do everything yourself

A good moderator needs to be engaged, so you can’t split your focus between running the group and taking notes. 

Bring in a colleague to help you take detailed notes of interesting contributions or body language while the session is running – they might catch things you missed. 

If they’re in the room, don’t exclude them from the conversation, or it’ll seem odd. They can chime in whenever they feel it’s appropriate, but their main job is to assist you. 

Try Countingup for your new business

If you’re running focus groups to gather information for a new business, try out the Countingup business account. 

Countingup is the business current account and accounting software in one app. It automates time-consuming bookkeeping admin for thousands of self-employed people across the UK. 

Save yourself hours of accounting admin so you can focus on growing your business. 

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