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Mastering focus groups for customer research

Last updated

13 January 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Business success is rarely accidental. Sure, the odd product may come about from a sudden flash of inspiration. Or a doodle-turned-logo may be an unexpected hit with consumers. However, most of the time, businesses build brands and products that resonate with consumers by listening to their customers.

Customer research is a critical element of new product design and development and brand-building efforts, as well as improving advertising, sales, customer service support, and overall customer experience.

Established in the 1940s, the focus group has long been a cornerstone of modern market research. Focus groups help businesses gather insights that, once validated with other research methods, they can use to shape their products, services, and operations. This approach improves the likelihood that new or improved products and services will be a hit and helps mitigate the risk of unprofitable products and bad marketing decisions.

Getting the most from a focus group requires careful consideration, time, and effort. If you want to use a focus group for a new product, branding initiative, marketing effort, or another purpose, you must take specific steps to prepare and conduct the sessions, and assess outcomes for the best results.

Preparing for the focus group

There are several steps you can take to ensure you’re fully prepared before your focus group sessions.

1. Define research objectives and target audience

First, identify your goals and objectives for your focus group. If you don't have clear goals, your participants will quickly become confused about why they are there, give you feedback that doesn't move your project along, and go off on tangents.

What’s more, without precise goals, you won't be able to determine the right venue, timing, and equipment to run an effective focus group session.

Knowing your target audience will help you determine the best participants to recruit.

Ideally, recruit around eight to ten participants from your target audience. Use in-house market research like customer and user personas to help you determine the profile of your ideal participants.

2. Prepare the questions

Plan what questions you would like to ask during the focus group sessions, or in which direction you would like to guide the discussion.

Take your time with this stage, as the questions you ask your focus group will determine how useful the sessions are overall.

Formulate focus group questions that:

  • Are open, rather than closed – make sure people can’t answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’

  • Get to the point

  • Are clearly worded

  • Are neutral and unbiased

3. Recruit participants

Recruiting focus group participants can be challenging. Some market research companies regularly recruit and maintain groups of potential focus group participants you can work with. Or you can tap into your existing customer lists, as well as recruit online and in your local community.

Clearly communicate the expectations, venue, and time commitment, and mention what compensation they will receive for their time. The compensation you provide is an important aspect, as without it, garnering interest often proves difficult. Additionally, the type of compensation (one month free of the company’s service, for example) can be used to naturally attract the right audience.

4. Select the appropriate venue

Your participant profile will help you determine whether you should run your focus groups virtually or in person.

If your target audience is local and you can recruit eight to ten members from it, an in-person focus group is best. In-person groups help you gather more participant feedback, such as body language. Sometimes, people are more engaged and expressive in person than online.

However, if your target audience is spread across multiple cities, states, or countries, it would be costly to pay for travel to an in-person meeting; you would be better off holding a remote session.

For an in-person focus group, find a private, quiet environment where participants will feel comfortable. It also should be easy to access. You'll also need to consider what equipment and aids you'll need. If your focus group is to watch a video of draft commercials or design concepts, you'll need a venue with an appropriate audio-visual setup.

If you’d like to record your focus group session, obtain the consent of all participants before you proceed. Make sure you're in a room that allows you to capture all participants with your recording device(s).

5. Prepare the moderator and team

Focus group moderation is a specialized skill. You can try it yourself, but unless you've had experience, it may be better to bring in an outside moderator.

Ensure the moderator is fully briefed before they begin. Share details about:

  • Your company, brand, and vision

  • Your project

  • Focus group goals and objectives

  • Target audience

  • Participant details

The more information they have, the more effectively they can facilitate the focus group to achieve your goals. They may also make suggestions about aspects of your setup that will help your focus group be more successful.

Conducting your focus group session

No matter the product or service your focus group is reviewing, certain fundamentals of focus groups remain the same.

1. Welcome participants and carry out introductions

The moderator (either you or another person) will start the focus group session by welcoming participants and having them introduce themselves to prime them to speak freely to and in front of each other. Sometimes improv games can help warm up the group nicely, allowing for better overall flow and participation throughout the session.

2. Establish the ground rules

Ground rules will help keep your impending discussion focused and conflict-free. They can also help ensure everyone participates. Otherwise, it's easy for particularly vocal participants to dominate the conversation and discourage others from engaging.

3. Encourage discussion and interaction

Using open-ended questions will encourage interaction. You will already have planned a number of these types of questions, but make sure any follow-up questions remain open, as these stimulate discussion. Questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or with a definitive answer, won't give you the insights you seek.

If answers to your open-ended questions begin to veer off topic, gently steer the conversation back to your intended subject.

4. Capture your focus group feedback

Assign a note-taker or two from your team to watch the session. Record it as well if you can get participant consent. The more of the focus group session you capture, the easier it will be to extract insights.

5. Address any issues that arise

Keep an eye out for participants talking over one another. Discourage this and other inappropriate behavior according to the ground rules.

Bear in mind, however, that a group of participants can get excited about an idea and talk in tandem, feeding off each other's ideas. It's important to recognize the difference between constructive and unproductive exchanges.

You must also be prepared to diffuse conflicts that may arise. Direct arguing should be shut down immediately. Keep an eye out for facial expressions and body language that may signal a rising conflict or growing disengagement, and be prepared to guide the group back toward positive, productive conversation.

Analyzing the session

1. Review the notes and transcripts

After completing your session, you'll need to determine the key takeaways. Some will be immediately clear and memorable, but review all your notes and recordings to ensure you're not missing anything important.

2. Organize and analyze the data

Look for common themes your participants have shared, and remember who shared them. Look at your data transcription and color-code common themes or cut and paste quotes that share a common theme into separate portions of a new document. Pay attention if you have participants with very different backgrounds saying the same thing.

Organizing your data in this manner can make it easier for you to evaluate and for your co-workers to assess it quickly and come to the same conclusions.

When you've organized your transcript by common themes, consider the background of the participants and the context of their statements. Look for the story behind the sentiments to help you identify potential action points.

4. Extract actionable insights

If you pay careful attention to the data, you’ll be able to extract actionable insights.

For example, say your focus group is for a new SUV design that is larger than most models on the market. Your participants include a mix of drivers from large families and professionals who frequently take weekend outdoor trips.

You may hear from the professionals, but not the parents, that the SUV is not as big as they'd expected. Poring through the data, you may learn that the interior, while suitable for multiple passengers, is less versatile regarding equipment storage. Accordingly, you may want to add more outside-equipment storage options.

From a digital-product perspective, you may find the new feature in an app you’re building is difficult to find for its intended audience. Perhaps the utility you thought it gave your users wouldn’t work in practice either because internet access is limited, they couldn’t use it while doing the task it was intended for, or it resonates better with a completely different audience and use case.

5. Present the findings

Capture your focus group findings in a written report which includes:

  • An overview

  • A summary of responses

  • The moderator's impressions

  • A list of recommendations

  • A summary

The report should also include a complete focus group transcript as an addendum.

Tips for successful focus groups

No matter how well you plan, focus groups can throw you a curveball or two. Follow these tips to increase your chances of running a productive session.

Establish a good rapport with participants

The more comfortable focus group participants feel, the more likely they are to speak openly. Building a good rapport will help you get the detailed feedback you need to make your focus group successful.

Welcome your participants, incorporate a fun icebreaker, look each person in the eye, and show a genuine interest in what they say.

Listen actively

It's easy to make people uncomfortable and destroy any rapport you have built by tuning out participants. People can tell when you're not listening to them. It's evident in your body language and responses.

Listen carefully to each person, and don't feel compelled to respond to every comment. When answering, make sure you respond directly to what they said.

Be fluid

Structure is important, but you don't want to be rigid. If the session is too regimented, you may miss some great insights and discourage participants from sharing further.

It's fine to deviate from your planned structure as long as you're still hearing feedback about your subject. And when things do get off topic, gently redirect the conversation.

Watch the clock

If you have a talkative bunch, it's easy for conversations to spiral off topic. You will need to cut off some conversations to make sure you ask every question you need to.

Use a gentle touch when cutting off the conversation. Even a slight edge to your tone could keep someone from sharing a brilliant insight.

Address difficulties directly

If someone is being disruptive, offensive, or otherwise impeding the conversation flow, deal with it immediately. A focus group can be easily derailed by a small issue that could snowball.

Address the issue as soon as it pops up, or others in the group could disengage.

Common mistakes to avoid

Make sure you avoid these common mistakes when running a focus group.

Asking leading questions

Don't ask questions that can lead to only one answer or a narrow set of responses. The point of the focus group is to gain accurate feedback.

If you phrase your questions in a way that makes participants feel like you're expecting a certain answer, you won’t get an accurate picture of their views.

Allowing dominant personalities to take over

Equalize the voices in the room. Usually, one or two people in every focus group are naturally inclined to talk, sometimes at length. Constantly allowing them to respond first can discourage others from engaging.

Don't focus too much on one opinion or perspective. When you do, you encourage others to follow suit rather than share potentially contrary ideas.

Failing to adequately prepare for the session

If you don’t know your goals, the questions you’ll be asking, or how to get the best results from the session, you may as well not hold a focus group at all.

Follow our tips above to fully prepare for your focus group session, and you’ll get the very best out of your participants.

Not recording the session

Record your focus group sessions (with the consent of participants). An accurate recording will help you determine the key takeaways from the session and the next steps for your project.


What is the ideal number of participants for a focus group?

The ideal number of focus group participants is eight to ten, not including the facilitator and the note-taker(s).

How do you recruit participants for a focus group?

When you've determined your target audience for your project, examine your existing customer lists, your personal and professional networks, and those of your colleagues. Post about the focus group in relevant online communities and social media platforms where ideal participants are likely to hang out. Create flyers and distribute them in relevant locations. You can also engage a market research firm to help you recruit participants.

How long should a focus group session last?

A typical focus group session lasts 60–90 minutes. If the session is shorter, you may not get the in-depth discussion you need to generate actionable insights. If it's longer, you may be delving into too many topics or participants may be going off on tangents.

Can you conduct a focus group remotely?

Yes, you can conduct a remote focus group session. However, make sure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of remote and in-person sessions before opting for a remote focus group.

How do you handle a participant who is dominating the discussion?

There are several approaches to handling difficult participants. Allow them to speak less frequently. Shift your attention away from them. If a participant speaks at length, interject, thank them, and ask them to cede the floor to someone who has not yet spoken. Set limits on the length of responses. You can also ask them to perform small, necessary tasks during the focus group.

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