For Russel Treat, founder and owner of Gas Certification Institute, which trains oil-field technicians, focus groups are a key part of customer research. He has spent thousands of dollars conducting them but doesn't regret a penny of it. "They're absolutely critical," says Treat, whose Houston company posts $700,000 in annual revenue. "At focus groups, I get [customers] talking about their challenges." After one recent session, Treat is considering adding recruiting services to his company's offerings.
Unlike phone or online surveys, focus groups gather people in person to talk about their needs, attitudes, and habits. If you're looking for quantitative information to analyze or crunch, you should use phone or online services. But focus groups can help you learn about public perceptions of your company, purchasing habits, and customer needs. "You get honest feedback and valid opinions," says C. Dean Cring, director of research at the Entrepreneurial Development Center, a nonprofit consultancy in Houston.
You can do the work yourself or hire a research firm to provide a facility, find participants, and plan and conduct the session. If you hire a firm, a focus group can cost $2,000 to $5,000, including the $75-to-$100 fee paid to each participant. Once you're ready to pony up, here's how to get started.
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Figure out what you're trying to learn. You can certainly have a list of questions and conversation starters in hand, but questions should be broad enough to encourage discussion, says Scott Adleman, president of market research firm Precision Research in Des Plaines, Ill. For instance, to get a sense of how others perceive your product or service, you could ask participants to imagine and describe who they think would use it and why. Or, says Adleman, you could ask customers to comment on a collage of images and words related to your product or industry, which might help you understand client attitudes.
2. FIND PEOPLE
Most focus groups consist of a dozen or so people. Demographics depend on the nature of your business. If you sell children's products, you might want a range of parents, perhaps of different ethnic groups or income levels. It's good to include a couple of existing customers, but also seek people who aren't familiar with your company. Don't include people who work in business research because they might try to overly influence the discussion. You certainly don't want a direct competitor or anyone working in your industry, says Ted Donnelly, managing director of consultancy Baltimore Research. Some research firms build large databases of prospective participants and can help you assemble a group with the demographics you seek.
3. CHOOSE A PLACE
You can find a facility designed to host focus groups through organizations such as the Qualitative Research Consultants Assn. or the New York American Marketing Assn. The facilities are equipped with large rooms, lots of seating, and video recording equipment. The rooms also have one-way mirrors, so you can observe the group without your presence becoming a distraction. You could also rent a conference room in a hotel, but those rooms won't have the one-way glass or video gear. Don't host the group at your facilities. You want to keep the setting neutral to minimize bias in the discussion.
4. PICK YOUR MODERATOR
Most sessions last about two hours. Lead the session yourself only if you're sure you can appear unbiased and are comfortable moderating a lively group discussion. Participants are often blunt and might be critical of your company. "If you're the type who'd get bent out of shape and take it personally, use a professional facilitator," says Cring. You or your moderator should make sure everyone participates. If one person is dominating the discussion, avoid eye contact with him or her and turn toward the quieter members of the group to draw them out. While you don't want the conversation to wander aimlessly, don't panic if you're not sticking to your list of questions. Be flexible and let the exchange flow. Someone might bring up an idea you hadn't considered.
5. DISCUSS RESULTS
Analyze your findings. Look for themes and ideas that stood out in the discussion, and see how you can use them to guide your product development or strategy. If you've hired professional researchers, they can help you with this task, or your managers can take it on if the information doesn't need to remain confidential. And be prepared for any negative feedback about your company or industry. After all, you wanted people to be honest.
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