Whenever you are developing or launching a new product, service, or business, you want to have a general sense of how receptive your target market will be to it.
This is usually done through extensive market research – and a key component of the research process is leading a focus group.
A focus group is a small group of people, usually representative of your target market, with whom you exchange ideas and ask questions about your product, service or company. The people who make up the focus group should be a mix of current customers and people who have never made a purchase but may do so in the future. The ideal outcome is a better understanding of how the focus group topic is being received by a wider audience and what changes (if any) should be made prior to the formal introduction.
In this article, we’re going to highlight a step-by-step process for conducting a focus group, planning your questions on a focus group questionnaire, following an agenda for your focus group meeting, and incorporating the results into your launch strategy.
How to run a focus group
- Choose your topic for discussion
- Choose your questions or discussion announcements
- Prepare your focus group questionnaire
- Appoint a notetaker
- Recruit and schedule attendees
- Get approval and start the discussion
- Let everyone introduce you
- Ask your questions
- Find an equal representation in the group
- End the meeting in a timely manner
- Analyze and incorporate feedback
Follow along with a free focus group questionnaire template
HubSpot’s research kit contains everything you need for an effective round of market research, including a focus group questionnaire and instructions on how to run focus groups. Download the kit now to incorporate the steps in this post into your focus group strategy.
How to run a focus group
1. Choose your topic for discussion.
If you go to a focus group, your discussion should be narrowed down to one or more topics. Remember, you will not be able to thoroughly address every area you want to discuss in a short focus group session.
For this reason, it is not uncommon for companies to hold multiple focus groups on different topics. For example, when launching a new product, you can have one focus group on marketing and branding the product and another on the usability and functionality of the product itself.
2. Choose your questions or discussion prompts.
When you have determined the topic of discussion for your focus group, create a list of questions and discussion prompts that you can use to gather the data you need.
Let’s go back from above for the product launch, for example. As you lead the product marketing focus groups, you can ask questions such as:
- What do you think of the packaging design?
- How much money would you spend on such a product?
- What other companies do you think of when you see such a product?
In the meantime, for a focus group, you might want to ask about the product itself about the functionality, usability, and the perceived cheapness of the product.
Also remember to ask open-ended questions: “Do you like the product?” and “What do you think of the product?” may appear similar in nature, but the latter will give more detailed results.
3. Prepare your focus group questionnaire.
After you’ve selected your questions and discussion prompts, organize them into a focus group questionnaire. Make sure there is enough space on the questionnaire for general notes, a list of general answers, and one or two noteworthy answers that will really stand out.
Download this template for free
4. Appoint a notetaker.
Your focus group discussion should be moderated by at least one person, while another person on your team should be a designated notetaker.
Why? The moderator’s job is to lead the discussion and encourage new ideas from the participants. This task can be easily derailed if the moderator also has to pause the discussion to write down big, bold ideas and responses from participants.
To avoid this possibility of interference, before going to the focus group, appoint a notetaker who can focus solely on writing down the general consensus of the group, clear and noteworthy individual responses, and key takeaways for the company.
5. Recruit and schedule attendees.
One of the hardest things about leading a focus group is getting people to actually show up. After you’ve chosen a time and place, you’ll want to get the word out to the participants.
Here are a few ways to find them:
Reach existing customers.
If you’re doing market research for an existing business, reach out to your customers through Account Managers or an email database. With current customers likely to be the first to use what you’re launching, this is the perfect opportunity to measure early responses to the official launch.
For incentives, you can offer free or discounted services, or reward them in a referral program like Influitive.
Advertising on social media.
Looking for middle-aged or senior men in the greater Ann Arbor area? No problem! Social media advertising offers advanced targeting options that you can use to reach your target market.
You should also consider which websites are used the most by the people you want in your focus group. If you’re interested in surveying middle-aged working people, chances are you’re luckier on LinkedIn than on TikTok.
Try location-based advertising.
When targeting a location, complement your recruiting efforts with ads that only people close to you will see. Some examples are:
- Billboard advertising
- Displays based on public transport (trains, buses, taxis, etc.)
- Advertisements in local publications and newspapers
Be ready to offer incentives.
People rarely do something for free. In your ads and promotions, highlight the incentive you want to offer – cash, a gift card, or a discount on anything you sell.
If you have money, consider running a raffle or giveaway for attendees. That way, if you host a focus group of eight, you can offer a chance at a $ 100 gift card (instead of a guaranteed $ 25 per attendee) to save $ 100.
6. Get approval and start the discussion.
Before starting your focus group discussion, remind participants of the purpose of the group and hand out a consent form. The consent form should repeat the purpose of the event, outline the rights of the attendees, identify the compensation, list the moderators’ contact information, and prompt attendees to sign.
After everyone has signed out, it’s time to lead the focus group.
7. Let everyone introduce you.
To break the ice and get people to talk, start the discussion by introducing themselves and inviting participants to do the same.
This is another chance for you to learn more about your target market. In addition to saying their names, get attendees to share their industry or interests to get a more personal understanding of how your product, service, or business can play a role in their daily lives.
8. Ask your questions.
Remember, this is not an interview! Before the focus group begins, make a list of five to ten questions.
That being said, it can be easy to get locked into your list of questions or talking points, but sticking too closely to them can hinder natural and effective conversations. If the group takes a slightly different turn than expected, don’t be afraid of the conversation going off course if it seems productive.
Running a focus group to solicit multiple ideas so that just listening to one or two people defeats the purpose of the exercise. If someone has been silent for too long, be ready to step in and say something like, “Isabella, what are you putting in here?” or “Raheem, what do you think of what Isabella said?”
The purpose of a focus group is not only to corroborate information that you believe to be true, but also to uncover what you do not know.
As long as it’s not too far off topic, allow the conversation to take place naturally and use an agenda as a guide rather than a point-by-point checklist of topics to consider.
Also, you may not ask every question on your list, depending on the direction of the conversation. Make sure to ask key questions first and follow up on specific discussion points to keep the flow flowing rather than just running a question-and-answer forum.
9. Find the same representative of the group.
Remember, this is not an interview! You lead a focus group to solicit multiple ideas. So if you only hear from one or two people, the purpose of the exercise will be defeated. If someone has been silent for too long, be ready to step in and say something like, “Isabella, what are you putting in here?” or “Raheem, what do you think of what Isabella said?”
10. End the meeting in a timely manner.
Exhaustion and the law of diminishing returns are real. So keep that in mind when planning the timeframe for your focus group.
At the beginning of the session, in your advertisements and / or on your consent form, you should indicate how long the focus group will last. It is your responsibility to moderate the discussion so that it does not exceed the time frame.
If the exercise lasts an hour and five minutes and you promised an hour of focus group, that’s perfectly acceptable. However, if you promised a 45-minute session and it lasts well over an hour, your attendees may be angry and less likely to provide valuable feedback.
When the discussion is over, thank your participants for their time and, if necessary, give the promised incentive. Also, remind them of your contact information if they decide they have more feedback or comments to provide.
11. Analyze and incorporate feedback.
Ideally, your focus group has provided you with plenty of answers, unique perspectives, and actionable ideas to help your business thrive. After all of your focus groups have taken place, have your team compile and analyze the commonalities of the ideas presented and any changes that may apply to the product, service or company in question.
Focus group agenda
To get started with your focus group, you’ll need an agenda to keep track of during the meeting. First of all, you would like to welcome the participants to the focus group and introduce yourself and other researchers who may be present. This step is important as it creates a relationship and trust with the group.
Ask participants to introduce themselves. This does a couple of things: It continues to build a relationship among group members and confirm the pronunciation of all names – you don’t want to spend the next hour or more together getting all the names wrong!
Before asking questions, establish some ground rules for the group. If a topic could get controversial, let them know and set limits on how far a discussion can go. When asking for information that is not normally shared in a group setting, reassure the cohort that there are no names or identifying data associated with the results. Finally, if your company reimburses expenses or makes payments to focus group participants, let them know how and when they will receive their payouts.
Here’s the fun part. While you may need to discuss a broad topic in the focus group, it is very likely that you have several subtopics that need to be addressed separately. Structure your questions so that the flow of the conversation makes sense. This can be done by subject, chronological order, or the current and future status of your company.
If you hit a breakpoint during the conversation, complete any remaining questions and ideas within the group. Finally, I thank everyone for their time and close the session.
If you want to organize these steps in a practical agenda, you’ve come to the right place. Download the PDF below and save it for your next focus group.
Example of a focus group
Now that you have a step-by-step guide on how to conduct a focus group, it’s time to see one in action. Using the steps above, I have identified a recent example focus group that meets most of the guidelines we recommend.
Georgetown University’s Department of Politics and Public Service led a focus group with first-time voters following the 2020 elections. It could have been very easy for this focus group to get off track and make political connections. In this example, however, you will find that the researcher had one topic in mind – the experience with first-time voters – and did not deviate from that topic. She asked exploratory questions and looked for different perspectives from the group.
Check out this focus group for a better understanding of how to start these conversations and keep them going to get the insights you need.
The information can now be explored for policy research to guide future campaigns for first-time voters.
Run a better focus group
When you take this methodical approach to leading a focus group, you can get better and more insightful feedback from your attendees. To help organize your questions, thoughts, and answers, we’ve developed a focus group template that you can use to create a better focus group. Download it now for free to get the most from your marketing research.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated for completeness.