Solving Problems With Focus Groups

Get smarter about how you use one of the most maligned communication research tools.

Why don’t we use focus groups to gather input?

It takes a lot to make campaign managers, planners, engineers and public involvement professionals all roll their eyes in the same meeting. But the lowly focus group regularly generates this reaction.

Why the aversion ? Lets face it: Most people do focus groups as a cheap shortcut to stakeholder input. The hard-number crowd often feels — not without good reason — the data is too soft to be useful. And communications professionals, perhaps because they’re most familiar with the format and its limitations, understand focus groups, by their nature, often raise more questions than they answer.

That’s a shame, because the technique — a facilitated discussion designed to solicit input about a predefined topic — has a lot to recommend it. Focus groups are relatively inexpensive, they’re flexible and offer a chance to interact with the target audience in a way that impersonal surveys can never match.

Properly utilized, public involvement focus groups can deliver hard data, can answer questions instead of raising additional ones and can engage stakeholders in hard-to-reach audiences.

The secret to using focus groups? Be open to changing nearly everything about them.

Change your expectations

A focus group should result in data useful to those making downstream decisions, period. It’s the right venue for asking big-picture, values-defining or open-ended questions; its not the right place to doggedly seek consensus or to engage in advocacy. Expect to learn from attendees’ questions about the project; they speak volumes.

Change the format

Focus groups work better if the questions are cast broadly and based on values. Resist the urge to start trotting out this-or-that options that require binary choices. (That’s correct: I am suggesting that your new project identity and logo don’t need to be focus grouped. However, the designer could definitely benefit by knowing the intended audience’s values.)

Change who you invite

There’s a tendency, particularly in public affairs, community relations and public involvement work, to invite focus group attendees as a sort of participation trophy — the invitee is often a proxy for the group he or she is thought to represent. But, most of the time, focus groups should balance input between knowledgeable stakeholders and those newer to the product or issue. Relying only on the former risks data that is myopic and, in political work, hopelessly distorted by single-issue viewpoints; in contrast, data from the general public alone may lack sufficient technical or policy depth.

Change the facilitator

If you want input from groups suspicious of your efforts (looking at you, developers and government agencies!), consider training peer facilitators from the community you want to reach. This approach also forces standardization on the process because, to compare results, all sessions will need to be consistent.

Change your analysis

One critique of focus groups is that the data usually doesn’t offer hard numbers for weighting what was said. However, there are several in-group exercises that can result in quantitative data. Does that data have the same granularity and accuracy as a quantitative survey? Probably not. But it can mean the difference between actionable focus-group outcomes and just having a report that says most people thought the idea/product/project under consideration was “nice.”

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