AB Thinks  →  3rd October 2016

Focus groups and how to make them work. Properly

Amy Hegarty

We’ve been up in Edinburgh recently – our last stop on a tour of the country, facilitating a series of focus groups for one of our clients.

For many in-house internal communicators, focus groups are a great way of getting beneath the surface of an organisation. They give you the chance to have invaluable, face-to-face conversations with frontline staff – locating the problems and digging deep to find the solutions.

However, if you’re asking people to give up their time to speak to you, it’s vital that you make the most of the opportunity. Here’s what we have learned over the years about getting the most from focus groups:

1. The power of two

Have two facilitators. If you have a talkative group, you‰’ll often have people talking over each other, so it‰’s useful to have someone concentrating on getting everything down on paper while the other asks questions and manages the ‘crowd control‰’.

2. Prepare to be unprepared

Preparation is vital. Nail your overarching objective – why you‰’re there. Consider your questions carefully, stick to a logical structure. Develop props and stimulus materials in advance. But be prepared to move away from your script if necessary. You never know where the conversation might lead, but be ready to follow it. If you stick religiously to the plan, you risk participants feeling frustrated or marginalised, plus you‰’re likely to miss the most important issue, which you knew nothing about before you walked in the room.

3. Record everything

You might think a throwaway comment is of little importance, but its significance may well come to light later. By capturing everything you hear, you will be able to take a step back and look at the full picture when you come to write your report.

4. Show your gratitude

Say thanks, bring doughnuts!

5. Give feedback

If you‰’re asking people to give up their time, they’ll want to know what it‰’s for or what difference they’ve made. Participants often tell us the very act of taking part in a focus group increases engagement – don‰’t ruin this by disappearing and giving the impression it was just a tick-box exercise.

6. Value everyone

You’ll often have a very opinionated member of the group who likes the sound of their own voice a little too much. Make sure you address others directly so they can share their opinions too.

7. Diversity is key

Make sure your groups are varied. Gather employees from different levels and roles and, if possible, visit different locations. It will give you different perspectives for your final report and ensure any trends you spot are clarified.