Focus Group Considerations for Small Businesses

Focus groups, or focus group interviews, are generally considered a quick and fairly inexpensive method for gathering in-depth, descriptive information from customers, prospects and employees. 

On the flip side, this popular type of qualitative research can be very subjective as findings are not representative of the full market segment and conclusions vary based on the perspective of what department (sales, operations, customer service, accounting, etc.) is viewing the discussion.  

Focus groups are best at providing help with identifying major issues, problems, and a range of desirable services and features.    One can gain in-depth personal information on customer attitudes, perceptions, behavior, lifestyles, needs and desires in a creative format.  In particular, focus groups can help with examining a new product concept or how to possibly advertise it, explore the criteria consumers may use to make purchasing decisions, or generate terminology for developing a questionnaire. 

The format can be flexible enough to allow delving into a particular response on the spot.  Participants can use their own words to answer questions versus a pre-determined list on a written survey.  A real world example occurs when attorneys use focus groups to gain insight into how people speak, think and feel about specific topics. 

Experts recommend a group size of six to twelve participants.  If you have a very opinionated group such as executives or a shy group of teenagers, consider reducing the group size to four to six.  One highly vocal participant can dominate the discussion and influence responses from others no matter the size; thus certain group and meeting management skills are essential! 

This type of research compliments quantitative research, such as written surveys that are number/statistic driven.

 Some standard “nuts and bolts” about consumer based focus groups include:

  • Plan on recruiting (external sources can help) and compensating participants who are targeted for certain characteristics (gender, age, occupations, hobbies/interests, etc.)
  • allow a minimum of one hour for each session with two hours usually the maximum
  • prepare to hold a minimum of three focus groups per target market segment, such as three involving men, three involving women, and three for each age segment
  • tape each session to allow multiple viewing of the exchanges and  responses (advise participants upfront that people are observing the session and it is being recorded)
  • develop an outline of open-ended questions, usually moving from general to specific
  • hold off site, such as in a hotel suite or office building conference room
  • hire a trained moderator / facilitator to obtain the best results
  • use name tags.

If you’re wondering about the role of the moderator/facilitator, his/her job is to explain the process and general guidelines, encourage discussion, restrain dominating personalities, remain emotionally detached from the subject or topic, ensure key questions are addressed, and maximize the use of probing questions.  

Other practical hints include making sure participants are provided assurances to give their honest opinions and are comfortable and relaxed.  Thus try to make sure the room isn’t cramped, too hot or too cold, and neither too dark nor too bright.   

If you’re a small business on a limited budget and want to conduct casual focus groups involving your key customers, you may be able to offer little or no cash compensation, but provide an appropriate thank you gift along with a meal and refreshments.  Experts advise to plan on paying a greater amount for the participation of highly trained professionals, such as attorneys and doctors.   

Here are a few ideas to spark your creativity.

  • A toy developer could observe and tape kids at a local day care center interacting with a new toy concept.  In this case, permission from the parents would be an absolute necessity.
  • A fitness center could seek information on new programs or customer satisfaction noting priorities between women and men.
  • A grocery store could seek information on a new marketing campaign targeting families of different income levels.
  • A bank could seek customer service information from new customers versus long term customers.
  • A youth organization could try to find out what new programs would appeal to youth at a certain age and distinguishing between inner city and suburban youth.
  • A technology store could research how their products are being used by age and gender.
  • A title company could research an idea for a new service based on residential versus commercial realtors.
  • A school district could question how technology impacts teachers and students in the classroom.
  • A business or organization could use the format informally to meet with employees about various topics, such as benefits, organizational issues.

Experts on the women’s market state that various forms of focus groups can be very useful when collecting information from women since they like to share stories in great detail and often relate products and services to people and lifestyle. 

Focus groups differ from town meetings, brainstorming sessions and study circles as the former have a clear plan and utilize a controlled process with greater structure, along with the fact that participants are selected based on characteristics they share.  Impractical uses of focus groups are trying to build consensus or educating a market segment. 

If you would like to visit about the various methods for obtaining customer information, please contact us at 817-488-2761 or email kate1@kgbmarketing@verizon.net.  We’ll be delighted to meet with you!