Despite not making most of their own purchases, kids have tremendous influence over which products make it into their households.  So, as marketing researchers, we recognize that kids’ opinions matter – a lot.  As any moderator who ever walked into a kids’ focus group thinking of the participants simply as pint-sized adults could tell you, designing and conducting qualitative with kids requires unique logistics and a different mindset versus adult groups.

Having conducted focus groups with kids of all ages for companies such as Disney and ESPN, I’ve learned the following modifications can hugely improve the experience for the moderator, participants, and clients:

Keep groups small:  To increase comfort and encourage sharing, seating 4-6 per group is reasonable.

Segment by grade rather than age:  Kids of the same age may not fall in the same grade depending on birthdays and school cut-off dates.  Grouping by grade instead of age is helpful since grade peers tend to have more in common and feel more comfortable engaging with one another.

For tweens and older, segment by gender also:  While most younger kids are less bothered by discussions among boys and girls, tweens and teens can become distracted, self-conscious, embarrassed, flirtatious.  And, always consider the subject matter – with topics that may feel more sensitive for children, segmenting by gender in younger kids’ groups as well is certainly warranted.

Think short and sweet for group length:  For kids up to 10 years old, aim for 45 minutes if possible (though can extend to 60 minutes if including lots of hands-on activities and at least one brief stretch break).  Tweens can handle slightly longer groups (75-90 minutes) with a dynamic moderator and brief exercises out of their seats to help fight off fatigue.

Balance managing the room with encouraging natural behavior:  While the moderator must lead the discussion and ensure research objectives are met, bear in mind that the overall goal of focus groups is to understand participants’ true opinions and reactions to the content.  With kids, that may mean anything from unstifled moans and groans to leaps out of their chairs with shrieks of excitement. Particularly with younger children or with kids of any age who struggle to articulate their thoughts, these natural reactions can often tell you more about their honest points of view than any other type of feedback.

Keep it active!  Incorporate a range of activities throughout the group to keep kids engaged and having fun.  Get them out of their seats for small group activities, use props like puppets and stuffed animals (for younger kids) to help kids voice their opinions, let them draw out their ideas (in color, not plain pencil!), use stickers to express their feelings, etc…the list goes on and on, but the idea is to keep them moving and sharing, in whatever form that may take.

Involve parents, too:  While important to get parental buy-in and permission during recruiting, it’s also helpful to conduct groups or at least brief discussions with parents before or after the kids’ groups.  Having both points of view builds a more complete picture of the household’s reality.

Expect the unexpected:  Kids are unpredictable, so expect things to not go exactly as planned!  Have back-up activities planned and extra materials/props available, allow a bit of extra time for reengaging the group as needed, and be prepared to think on your feet and adapt throughout the session.  (During a group with tween girls years ago, many participants were feeling shy about speaking up…until one of them mentioned how cute she thought Zac Efron was in High School Musical.  I played along a bit, asking “Oh really?” and suddenly they were all chiming in, eager to talk about the High School Musical posters on theirs walls at home, how much they loved the movie soundtrack, and of course their crushes on their favorite actor.  While it required allowing a few moments of off-topic conversation, the incredible change in the engagement of participants and overall energy in the room was well worth it!)

Last, but definitely not least, have fun!  Some of my absolute favorite focus groups have been with kids.  While staying in the lead and meeting the research objectives (of course!), don’t be afraid to let a bit of your inner kid join in as well.  Whether through silly warm-up songs to get participants engaged and comfortable, a brief puppet show to set the stage for the discussion, or demonstrating activities with your own sticker collages or drawings, let yourself enjoy the unique energy of kids’ groups.