At the time of writing, I was tasked with creating a volunteer training document for a client on how to run focus groups. This article comes off the back of my work on that document. I hope you find it useful for your non-profit cause.
Everyone, including charities, is re-adjusting to the ‘new normal’ society they must operate within. It is now more critical than ever for non-profits to actively listen to their volunteers, donors, staff and service users. If you could ever assume to know what they are thinking, you certainly can’t now. Holding a focus group is an excellent way to reconnect and engage with those that are important to your organisation. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of your audiences will better inform your decisions and the direction you take.
“They are particularly useful when there are power differences between the participants and decision-makers, when the everyday use of language and culture of particular groups is of interest, and when you want to explore the degree of consensus on a given topic.” – Oxfam, Conducting Research Guidelines.
What Is a Focus Group?
A focus group is an organised and facilitated group discussion. Sizes of groups can vary. In my opinion, there isn’t an ideal number of participants for a focus group. What’s more important is that the participants are a representative sample of a target market. A facilitator guides the group discussion, centred around a core topic. The primary aim of focus groups is for the organiser to gain greater insight into the minds of the participants on the topic. Ultimately, this insight can be applied to better understand the target market at scale.
The Cambridge Business Dictionary offers a clear focus group definition; “a group of people brought together to discuss what they think about a particular product, advertisement, or subject, as part of a company’s market research”.
Focus groups are a form of qualitative market research. This form of research aims to record participants honest perspectives on a topic using open-ended questions. In-depth answers and opinions emerging from the group interaction offer a more complete picture than just numerical or statistical data alone.
Are They Expensive to Run?
They needn’t be. Any organisation can hold a focus group, and it is possible to run one for next to nothing. There are, of course, many benefits to hiring professionals, the obvious being the assurance that the results and conclusions are reliable. However, the additional expense can make this vital element of market research a luxury for many non-profits. Because of this, I have written this article as though you were planning to organise a shoe-string budget focus group yourself.
Focus Group Advantages and Disadvantages
Focus groups are only one tool in the market research kit. As such, you should consider focus group pros and cons:
Pros include –
- Conversational. In my opinion, holding focus groups needn’t be a struggle. In essence, they are just group conversations. The conversational format is why I believe focus group techniques appear more natural to participants in contrast to other market research methods.
- Efficiency. Receiving opinions from multiple participants and observing how their answers form is a very efficient way to gain insight into an audience.
- Can be more cost-effective than other research methods. There will always be some expenditure. However, as you are questioning a small sample of a wider market, costs can be less than gathering market-wide data.
- They are very focused – surprise! When conducted properly, you will have the attention of participants dedicated to the desired topic. Facilitating answers better enables removing an individual from the distractions of everyday life and the often rushed responses provided when completing polls or questionnaires.
- Context. Unlike other popular research methods, responses received from focus groups can better enable you to contextualise and explain findings.
- In-person. It can be easier to approach taboo topics in-person to get useful responses. Being able to gauge the body language of participants and adapting questions is not possible in polls or questionnaires.
- Adaptability. Seeing how the group interacts and responds to your questioning provides opportunities to adjust and expand questions for greater insight.
- Unexpected outcomes. Because of their adaptability, focus groups can give surprising answers and even unexpected questions that you may not have originally planned on asking.
Cons include –
- Only a snapshot. As focus groups only include a sample of a target market, the results are merely a snapshot. However, you can utilise the results of a focus group for further wide-scale research.
- Making it count. You have a limited amount of time to get through your questioning.
- Can be expensive. As mentioned, if you outsource the running and organisation of a focus group to an agency, it can be costly.
- Influence. It is all too easy to influence the answers given by the group. Facilitators will have their own beliefs and opinions. They may subconsciously try to persuade others to agree with these. The threat of influence is why you must try to find a facilitator with as least personal bias on the questions as possible.
- Group dynamics can also influence the answers individuals provide
- Analysis can be troublesome. Due to the nature of the results, the data gained is not as simple to quantify. Unlike statistics from a poll for example.
- Recruitment and ensuring attendance can be a struggle.
- Participation levels. A worst-case scenario regarding participation would be that the group consists of many introverts with one dominating voice. To make a focus group effective, you want responses from all participants. This issue can be avoided by having a knowledgeable facilitator who understands how to run a focus group successfully.
When Is the Right Time to Use a Focus Group?
It could be argued that focus group research is useful whenever an organisation is making a decision that will be influenced by the views of an audience. However, some definitive examples can be used as a guide; these include:
- To help improve the upcoming collection of numerical data (quantitative market research), e.g. Discovering what questions are most relevant for the audience to be asked in questionnaires
- To reinforce findings from collected quantitative research. Quotes can help humanise a statistic
- Better understanding data anomalies such as conflicting results
- For creating marketing campaigns and advertising messages
- Understanding how expanding into new products or services will be received
- At the end of a programme to evaluate its impact – they can be an excellent way to generate actionable feedback.
Simply put, a focus group is an excellent way to view a topic through the lens (personal experiences, perceptions and opinions) of a group of people with things in common. If you want in-depth answers to questions that would not be suitable in a survey, a focus group is a great tool.
Focus groups can also be used in a workshop format. You may wish to expand your service or design solutions and want to hear ideas on what service users would find useful, for example.
It can’t be understated how important it is to choose a focus group facilitator that is unbiased. You will want someone who has a background knowledge on the topic and your organisation but preferably is external not to skew answers. A good facilitator will be:
- A skilled communicator
- Able to limit possible disputes
- Good at reading body language
- A moderator to stop individuals dominating the discussion and ensure adequate participation levels.
Participants need to feel relaxed and not as though they are being interrogated. If possible, your facilitator will also be matched to the general demographics of participants in your focus group. At the same time, it is the facilitator’s responsibility to keep the discussion focused and draw out valuable answers to the required questions. The last thing you want is for a focus group to turn into a basic question and answer format. This is why a prepared structure for the discussion is needed, including carefully planned flexible questions that can be adapted on the day depending on how participants receive them.
Focus Group Recruitment
Participants are the heart of any focus group; as such, you will want to take the time to recruit them carefully. When selecting participants, always keep the purpose of a focus group in mind, i.e. to better understand a target markets thoughts/feelings/behaviours surrounding a defined topic.
To do this effectively, you will want to create some form of an evaluation process. Ideally, you want to avoid an entirely random selection. The criteria will differ based on the subject matter you are aiming to uncover and the target audience you have decided to investigate. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Is the participant a member of the target market?
- Will they know an answer to the questions I want answers to?
- Are they able to attend the location/time of the focus group?
- Do they know other participants in the focus group?
It is likely better if you can avoid group members knowing each other prior to holding the focus group. This can help reduce the influence from existing relationships, create more open honest conversation in a non-judgemental environment and therefore provide more reliable results.
Again, in my opinion, there is no catch-all ideal number of participants for a focus group. However, you will want to ensure that the focus group sample is representative of the target market’s demographics. It should also be evident that you will not want a group so small as to defeat the point in holding a group discussion. Or, a group so large that it is not possible to facilitate a group discussion.
Your Target Market for a Focus Group
Defined is the word to keep in mind. To get meaningful results, you will want to keep in mind ‘what’ you are trying to learn and from ‘who’. What you are trying to learn is often the easiest, e.g. ‘What they think about our new advert’. If you are considering running a focus group, you most likely already have an issue you want to explore.
At the minimum, you need your focus group to consist of participants that are representative of all the demographics in your target market.
With that said ‘who’ you are trying to learn it from can be oversimplified. Let’s use the example of an over 50s target market. Yes, this is a defined target market; however, it is still broad. There are many demographics within this, including gender, ethnicity, location. For example, you may be planning on having 8 participants. Let’s say only one of these identifies as a male Indian: Bangladeshi from the West Midlands. Can you be sure that you will get reliable results that represent the opinions of this sub-market? Although a focus group aims for qualitative data, you may have questions to ask the group to see if there is a consensus.
Ideally, you will want to define a segment of a target market that can be represented with your focus group. To achieve this, you may decide to run multiple focus groups with different segments where participants are matched by demographics and other characteristics.
For this reason, focus groups are best used alongside questionnaires and other market research methods. Target markets can be necessarily broad, and it unpractical to run multiple focus groups. If this is the case, consider utilising focus groups to complement findings from other research methods and build a complete picture.
How to Find Focus Group Participants
Roughly speaking, the target markets for any focus group will likely fall into the two following categories:
- Those that have had contact with your organisation, e.g. existing volunteers, existing donors and existing service users.
- Those that have not, e.g. potential volunteers, potential donors, prospective service users and even new target markets for expanding services etc.
Finding focus group participants for those that have had contact with your organisation will, of course, be more accessible than the latter. Depending on your data policy, you could contact them directly and invite them to participate. Often, individuals will appreciate being asked to give their opinion and efforts made to hear the voice.
It will likely take more creativity to find group participants for those that have not had contact with your organisation. Using your comms channels is an excellent place to start, for example, posting a message asking for participants on social media.
Either way, at this stage, you will want to inform potential group members of the topic that will be discussed without giving away the specific questions. Providing the date, time and location, of course, will be necessary to help filter any enquiries.
It may be wise to consider over-recruiting in case you have low attendance on the day.
Regarding incentives for participants; as this article is focused on holding a low-cost focus group, my suggestion is to recruit participants in a voluntary capacity. As such, you could consider covering travel expenses and providing refreshments but not payment (as volunteers are not volunteers if they are paid).
Other considerations include consent and confidentiality. Ethically, any personal identifiers or information must be confidential and protected. Depending on your individual focus group circumstance, you may need a focus group confidentiality agreement/non-disclosure agreement and focus group consent form. If you are recording the group, do you have consent permissions? How will you be storing the recording? Also feedback from programmes, for example, can be an excellent resource for marketing materials. If you decide that you may want to use some of what has been said as a testimonial, you will likely want to obtain the relevant permissions. Please note that this article for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. If in doubt, check with a legal professional.
Hosting a Focus Group
Location, location, location. You will need a venue space that is –
- Convenient for your group members to both find and attend
- Large enough to accommodate the size of your group
- Equipped with wifi, display, audio equipment etc. if required
- Comfortable enough to encourage participants to talk openly
- Private for participants to feel secure and provide honest answers
- Accommodating for the needs of all participants, e.g. wheelchair accessible.
You will also want to consider the time and day of the week that best suits the demographics of your group. For example, it may not be possible for the elderly to attend outside of a carers schedule or for single parents to attend outside school hours.
Sending reminders, maps and contact information should participants get lost will help reduce participants not attending on the day.
How long should a focus group last? Well, as long as you need to get your questions answered while being considerate to the participant’s needs. Don’t presume that focus groups will be easy for participants. They will be thought-provoking and potentially tiresome. As such, no longer than two hours is a good guide time.
There are many benefits to holding focus groups online. Social distancing is an obvious one in times of pandemic. Now more than ever, our society has been exposed to online conferencing in one form or another. Other benefits include:
- Can further minimise costs
- Location becomes less of an issue. In fact, online may be a preferred option should group members be geographically spread across the country
- Much more convenient for participants
- A greater level of anonymity for group members. This may encourage more open discussion.
There are also cons for going online, technical issues being a justified concern. It is best practice to send reminders with clear instructions as to how to login to the focus group.
There are many tools you can use to hold a focus group. If your organisation utilises the Google Non-Profit Grant, you could even consider using Google Meet. Whatever your choice, you need to ensure the online focus group software you use is secure and that you maintain your organisation’s data and privacy policies. If in doubt, check with a legal professional.
Before considering your first question, you will want to gather any existing research your organisation may have carried out. This will help inform and direct precisely what information is outstanding or needs clarifying or further exploration. At this stage, it can also help to envisage how you intend to use your results.
The context of questions to be asked in focus groups will vary significantly on an individual basis. However, in a focus group setting open-ended questions work best for soliciting honest responses. Questions should be posed in a way that does not lead the response. They must be clear, explicit and understandable. Questions should also be sequenced logically to avoid influencing later responses. Asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions are useful as the answers you get are often not accessible from other market research methods, e.g. polls and surveys.
To do this, try using the following steps:
- Ask open-ended questions to get broad answers.
- Ask probing questions that aim to understand the answers from your broad questions.
- Ask clarifying questions to ensure that you have understood their answers.
Presenting your questions in interactive ways, using activities can be an excellent tool for keeping participants engaged.
Asking ‘why’ type probing questions can sometimes sound judgemental. It is better to use TED; this stands for – T(Tell), E ( Explain), D(Describe).
Some examples of TED questions are:
- Tell me, how did this make you feel?
- Explain more about how this will affect you
- Describe to me how this situation began.
Be aware that sometimes people may not consciously know the answers to more probing questions. This is particularly true when answers are based on emotions and how they feel about a situation. Should you get resistance to probing questions, simply acknowledge that they do not want to talk about it further and move on. It can be easier to explore sensitive topics towards the end, allowing first rapport and comfort to be built within the group.
Remember that although it is the role of a facilitator to provide structure to the discussions, it is important to remember they allow the group participants to lead any debate that occurs.
Listening is a skill. Facilitators need to be interested in what group members have to say and may even need to give reassurance that they are listening on occasion.
To actively listen, a facilitator needs to:
- Be curious and listen with an open mind
- Have a genuine interest and intention to understand what they are saying
- Be non-judgemental to avoid drawing their own conclusions
- Allow them to communicate fully without interruption in order to let them be heard
- Let them know you are still listening if the person pauses
- Repeat back key parts of what they have heard to show their interest and ensure they heard correctly what had been intended.
Common ways of clarifying are to say:
- So you’ve told me so far…
- From what you’ve told me, it seems…
- Based on what you’ve said, my understanding is…
As well as recording your focus group, taking notes for the duration will be useful. This will both help save-time as well as document any in-person intuition that may not be obvious from a recording.
Because a facilitator will already have a lot to keep in mind, you may wish to have an additional person take notes. Documenting key points as well as non-verbal behaviour, will give you a useful record of events. The note-taker will not need to write verbatim as they can look back at the recording to get useful quotes.
Focus Group Schedule
Preparation is key; you need to have your questions outlined for your facilitator in advance. A clear and concise discussion format is essential for you to achieve the focus group’s purpose. Again, it is important to note that these questions should only be a guide and not in a questionnaire style.
To begin, you will want to welcome, cover house-keeping and thank the participants for attending. The facilitator should explain who they are, why they are running the group and ask for permissions to take notes/recordings.
Explain how anonymity will work both in the recording and further use of information gained from the focus group. This will vary based on your organisation’s requirements and policies.
It will also help to inform the members of the focus group how this research will help your non-profit. Confirm with members the proposed duration of the group to ensure there are no time-related issues. It can be useful to run over ground rules for discussions, e.g. respect each other’s views.
Should you have time, Cancer Research UK suggests having a planned ice-breaker “Start the focus group with an ice breaker to get people warmed up and ready… This will also help people start to get to know each other and feel more comfortable engaging in the focus group.”
The facilitator will lead the discussions, keeping them focussed and on topic based on your pre-made questions. A good facilitator will adapt and expand upon questions based on the group feedback. Actively listening to responses, repeating back key points for clarification will help identify what is important and gain insights into the group’s perspectives.
Every member should have the opportunity to respond on their terms. They should also have the option not to respond as they wish. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to ensure that others are not spoken over or put down for their comments. Everyone’s views are valid.
Remember to keep an eye on the clock.
Give members advanced warning that the focus group is coming to a close. Get further clarification on any key responses as needed. Take at least the last ten minutes to thank them for participating, don’t merely rush them away.
Once the participants have left, the facilitator should ensure that they have taken all of the notes they need while they are fresh in their mind. These notes will form the basis of your further analysis and report.
You may wish to maintain contact with the group members, updating them on your findings and potential actions you are planning on taking as an organisation. Maintaining contact with individuals who are passionate about your cause may offer future help with focus groups, case studies or even user-generated content.
Your report will vary based on the context of carrying out your focus group and internal requirements. As a guide, most reports will likely include:
- The purpose of running the focus group
- How many participants and how they were recruited
- Your findings including any consensus
- How findings will be utilised
- If this was your first time holding a focus group, what were your impressions, and what would you do differently next time?
- If you have used other market research methods, these quotes can reinforce the integrity of findings and humanise statistical data.
A noteworthy point – It can be easy to forget the context in which an answer was provided. Particularly for anyone using the report which was not a part of the focus group session. You will want to avoid offering an answer as evidence if this is not accurate. To prevent this, you could include a transcript for context around each finding you present. I.e. the topic, the question posed, previous questions/responses if part of a wider discussion and perhaps even tone of voice and non-verbal cues if relevant.
Implement Your Findings
Finally, after analysing your results, you will want to create actions that can be implemented. The purpose of holding the focus group was to find out information that would better inform your strategic decisions. The effort spent so far was only worthwhile if you take on board the focus group feedback. Be prepared that this may mean making amendments or even starting again on work that you have carried out.