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Preparing the focus group
Define the objectives. A specific purpose in mind is crucial to focusing on the most important information, gathering the most relevant audience to the discussion and creating a useful discussion plan. The purpose has to be clear and specific so that the rest of the process goes much easier.
Determine the best participants, develop a list of features the respondents should meet, create a list of possible participants, recruit them. Send them letters of invitation and call for confirmation a couple of days before the focus group. Make sure you invite twice more people than you expect to come. Respondents should be a relevant audience for the problem to be discussed. Don't mix target markets, focus groups should be as homogeneous as possible.
Select a location and times for the focus groups. The times should be convenient for the participants. Try to consider lunch break, early morning or late afternoons. As a location, choose a comfortable, quiet room,without distractions, where people can be placed around a table so that all can view each other. Make sure that the environment encourages conversation and doesn't suggest too much to the respondents about the issue in discussion.
Select a moderator and recorder staff. The meeting should be facilitated by someone not directly involved in the program. This person should be able to deal with a group of people, to keep the discussion on track, encourage all the participants to express their opinions. Consider recording the meeting in writing and , if possible, audio-video. The recorder staff should note every comment, every attitude and every gesture. All these are very important in analyzing respondents' answers.
Develop a discussion guide. This should point the main elements during the meeting, the introduction, presentation of the company and the issue discussed, the questions, and after the free discussion, the conclusion and ending. This represents only guidelines for the facilitator, who has the freedom to conduct the meeting according to his experience and intuition, rather than a script.
Formulate the questions you plan to ask. Based on the information you need to gather about the project, program, product, develop a number of questions to ask the participants. You can use questions from a previous questionnaire, providing that the respondents are allowed to reason their choices this time. Make sure all the questions are open-ended and neutral. Begin with more general questions, concerning well-known issues and then proceed to more specific ones.
During the focus group
Schedule the meeting so that it doesn't take more than 30 minutes to one hour. This should be enough for introduction, questions and wrap up. And make sure you stick to the schedule.
Arrangement details. Make sure the conference room used is easily accessible and there is signage to direct participants there. Make all the efforts for better accommodation. Provide name tags, pens and paper, refreshments.
Agenda. Start the meeting by welcoming everyone and presenting the organization in brief. Explain the purpose of the focus group and underline the fact that you count on their sincere, open, personal opinions. Explain that each respondent will be given an opportunity to answer to a series of questions. Start by asking the general questions and then go to specific issues. Give everyone the chance to talk. Finally, draw a conclusion wrapping up all their answers and thank everyone for attending the meeting.
Guide the questions towards issues concerning your company's perception among consumers, the efficiency of your marketing strategy, their ideas about improving your activity. Ask questions about their habits and behavior, values and standards, their opinion abut pricing, and barriers to accessing your products. Note positive as well as negative feedback from respondents, and be aware of the language used. It might reach to the target market better than anything else.
The moderator must focus on collecting information so that the purpose of the meeting is met. He should make sure all answers and comments are in context, encourage the participants to give feedback, even the quite ones. He should keep the discussion on track and don't exceed the time limit. The proper attitude is objective, so that the participants feel comfortable sharing their opinions. He should keep a distant position from all the arguments, not presenting advantages or disadvantages as facts, but as simple information. Doing so, participants will be more sincere in their critiques when reviewing an impersonal issue. The facilitator should manage carefully all disagreements and cast all the information in a positive light. At the end of the session, all the participants should be made aware of the importance of their contribution.
Record every response. Have the moderator writing down important ideas on flip-charts, as well as the note-taking staff who should notice all talking , movement, gestures or attitudes to be analyzed later.
After the focus group
Make any additional notes on your already written notes, flip-chart in order to clarify any misunderstanding or abbreviation. Capture fresh impressions right after the meeting by reviewing it with another person and writing a summary.
Analyzing what you learned. Study the summary and notice possible trends, ideas, complaints. Also review the tone and the context and exclude any emotional response, focus on the honest, real answers.
Write a report. For better results, put in order what was said and condense the information. Note any relevant information about the focus group, its background and purpose, people who attended, the subject, the way the discussion evolved, any surprises during the session and any other comment worth attention. Note the general trend of the discussion and the main theme. Draw conclusions and use the findings in shaping the next steps to success by putting them in practice.
In trying to put the results into practice you should schedule a meeting to discuss and review the report and analyze the implications of the information achieved. Compare and combine them with other researches' results (surveys, polls, interviews). Emphasize the main trends and themes as well as issues and problems that occurred during the focus group. Transform all the information into actions to be taken. Take advantage of all the resources the focus group provided.
This method can be used to evaluate customers' opinions about products and services or test new ideas on potential target markets.
Compared to usual questionnaires who use standard questions and gather pure statistical data, focus groups gain in-depth sense of how people think due to open-ended interrogations that figure out not only the answer people choose but the reason why they choose it.
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