A focus group is a face-to-face meeting with a sampling of customers that helps you learn about their needs and perspectives. Focus groups also enable your customers to find out more about your company.

Focus groups are not a substitute for understanding market problems, but they can supplement the process. You can use focus groups to validate a wide range of issues such as:

You can conduct focus groups at any time during the product lifecycle.

Before conducting a focus group, ensure you understand your goals. Establishing objectives in advance provides a clear framework for you and your team, and will help you direct the discussion so that goals are met. For example, you might want to test the idea for a new product with participants in order to be able to clearly identify which target market most strongly identifies with that product.

Advantages of focus groups

Focus groups offer the following advantages:

  • They are relatively quick, inexpensive and simple to arrange.
  • They are effective for accumulating extensive data in your customers’ own words and developing deeper insights into their wants and needs.
  • Focus groups succeed in acquiring data from children and people with lower literacy levels.
  • They involve participants in data analysis (for example,“Which of the issues we discussed are most important to you?”).
  • Focus group participants can build on each other’s responses and develop ideas that might not have occurred in one-on-one interview settings.
  • Participants can serve as checks and balances for each other by identifying factual errors or outlier responses.

Limitations of focus groups

Despite the advantages listed above, focus groups are not appropriate in every situation. Bear in mind that they do have several limitations:

  • Participants’ responses are not independent, as they occur in a group setting.
  • Several dominant members can affect the results of the session.
  • Focus groups require the involvement of a moderator with some skill and experience in running and controlling group sessions.
  • Analysis of the compiled data requires significant skill and experience.

Identifying potential participants

As with a beta program, identify the participants that would be most appropriate for your focus group. Depending on your goals for the session, you might want to include different types of participants.

Example: If you seek an answer to a question about your strategic direction (“Do we want to move into this market?”), it might be wise to include representatives of your buyer persona.

If you desire a product usability discussion (“Does this software meet the needs of sales personnel?”), you might want to include representatives of your user persona.

Moderator’s role

The moderator is responsible for running the focus group. The moderator’s role is to ensure that all participants have a chance to speak—this includes attempting to elicit comments from the more timid participants.

The moderator should remain objective, and not present a bias toward an outcome, nor take a position or side with an individual participant.

The moderator should also be skilled in conflict resolution to help the focus group proceed smoothly and guide the group back on topic if required.

Running a successful focus group

The following guidelines will help you run a successful focus group.

Simplify the agenda

The agenda does not need to be complex (see the sample agenda below). Limit the session to a half a day so that you can use your participants’ time wisely.

Collect feedback

Ask focus group members to consider the issue for several minutes and then write down their responses. Have each participant share his or her thoughts on the issue. Seek input from every member in the group, and promote discussion of their responses.

Allow ideas to flow

Remember that the best ideas arise from the culmination of participant ideas. Allow the conversation to flow naturally, as long as it stays on topic.

Document it

Use a flipchart to record the group’s responses for future reference. At the conclusion of the session, share resulting action items and notes with the participants.

Sample focus group agenda

Focus group objective: Your organization wants to explore a more expensive product line with additional features that appeal to a different market segment. You choose to hold a focus group to ask their perspectives.

Use the following agenda to explore this question.

8:00–8:30 am Arrival and continental breakfast
8:30–8:45 am Outline objectives
8:45–10:00 am Present the potential new product offering and ask participants if they would buy it (why or why not?)
10:00–11:15 am Collect participants’ feedback; respond to questions
11:15–11:45 am Summary of session and next steps

References

Harris, B. (2010). Tips & Tools: How To Run Customer Focus Groups Successfully. Retrieved September 24, 2010, from http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/publications/magazine/2/5/0410bh
Webcredible. (2006). Focus groupshow to run them. Retrieved September 24, 2010, from http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-usability/focus-groups.shtml