Let’s play a word association game.  If you hear the term ‘Focus Groups’, what are the first three things that pop into your head?  If I were a betting man, I would guess what you thought of something to do with the in-room experience or, if you’re a marketer, the back-room food and candy. However, when there is real magic in the front room, most of what makes up a successful focus group are decisions and techniques people never think about.

In fact, when we set out to understand the 10 areas for successful groups, the first 8 steps occur before a single participant shows up.  Most of what makes focus groups successful are the steps and decisions leading up to the groups.  This is not to underestimate the need for a talented, flexible and empathic moderator, but that person can only be as good as the work leading up to their time in the room.

Here are the first five areas that must take place for not only success but for truly enlightening qualitative work.

1. Understand Objectives of the Work

Without clear and specific objectives, qualitative is doomed to fail. The objectives drive the type of stimulus required, the length of the group, who will need to be recruited and, most importantly, provide a clear articulation of what the Team wants to learn.  This is critical so that all involved in the project can buy into the plan.  The more definitive and succinct the objectives are, the easier the rest of the process is.

2. Ensure Stimulus is well thought out and ready

Stimulus, if needed for the discussion, is the foundation of the groups.  It can help provide real direction and insights.  However, the groups will only be as good as the stimulus provided.  It is critical for the Team to work on stimulus well before the groups to not only perfect it but to ensure all interested parties can weigh in.  The moderator can be a key resource here as he/she can be a fresh pair of eyes and provide a consumer point of view prior to the groups.

3. Pick the best market

The market should be selected based on where the best recruiting can be done, NOT based on BDI information.  For example, ‘Market X’ may have a 400 BDI, but if the facilities there are not sophisticated and experienced, the ability to recruit participants for the study successfully will be in jeopardy. A good moderator should push for using a recruiter that has a proven track record of getting quality respondents.  Getting the right person in the room is most important.  Yes, there are products and services that may be local or regionally based and, in those instances, the markets may be limited but even in those circumstances, choose a market that has trusted results, not where the BDI’s are strong.  In all instances, keep in mind that the work is only as good as the caliber of the respondents in the room.

4. Make sure the right people are in the room

Inevitably someone unrelated to the current project says ‘while we have some folks in the room, let’s ask them’ about an unrelated project.  It is important to remember that the respondents in the room were put there for a specific topic and purpose. If they are asked about something outside of what they were recruited to talk about, they may be of little help or may derail a project all together

5. What about Homework?

Homework is a useful tool that lets respondents take time to answer difficult or more complicated questions ahead of time, therefore providing more thoughtful answers.

Homework is a great tool when used well but it should have a real purpose to further the learning.  Often clients want to put in ‘a collage’ for no other reason than they had ‘heard its cool to do.’  Homework for homework’s sake can be time consuming and costly.  Make sure it is meeting an objective, otherwise don’t do it.

Click here to read Part Two of the series: 10 Key Areas that Lead to Successful Focus Groups: Part Two to get more tips on how to make your next focus group as effective as possible.