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Employee Comms

How to Run a Successful Focus Group: 7 Steps

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 — April 15th, 2021

How to Run a Successful Focus Group: 7 Steps

The most successful focus groups are a benefit to everyone involved: participants feel that their views are heard and valued, and the organization gains tremendous insight that market research alone cannot provide.

Whether you’re wondering how to conduct a focus group with employees or reaching out to the wider public, follow a few key guidelines and you will be on the right road.

Top Tips & Traps – Employee Focus Groups

Don’t underestimate the role of the moderator

Actually, this role might need to be doubled up, with a moderator who takes on the mantle of devising probing questions and drawing out members to share their views, and an assistant who is free to take in-depth notes, including details such as participant body language.

Nonverbal cues can give deep indications that participants don’t voice; research by Gorden goes into detail about the huge variety of nonverbal data types, covering everything from posture to variations in the volume, pitch, and quality of their voice. Providing the moderator with a helper who can tune in to these details can let you record valuable information that might otherwise get overlooked.

It’s tempting to “lead the witness”, but try not to

You may go into your focus group with an idea of what participants will say, but try not to pose questions in a way that guides respondents towards a particular reply. Focus groups are all about uncovering motivation and potentially unconscious thinking and biases; genuine insights and ideas can come out in the course of a discussion, but try not to state those ideas directly, or you could stifle the natural outcome of the focus group and lead the answers.

Good moderators can deflect back to participants with questions

What if you kick off your focus group with the best intentions of allowing participants to speak their minds without muddying the waters with your own thoughts, and they quiz you for your opinions on the topic at hand? Experienced focus group moderator Brooke Niemiec advises moderators to deflect back to participants by answering a question with a question.

Instead of answering direct questions, the moderator takes this opportunity to probe, saying, “What do you think?”

Employee focus groups should cast their net wide

Workforces are diverse in terms of role, background, responsibility, knowledge, and more. It’s important to bring in focus group participants that are a true cross-section of the organization. You may worry that senior employees and juniors could have a negative effect on each other, but if that’s the case, gather participants together in select, curated groups.

Focus group expert Debra Corey reminds us that this cross-section shouldn’t just include role type or seniority, but cultural, ethnic, and community diversity, especially where an organization has a global workforce who may bring different insights and cultural sensitivities to the focus group.

Your global team’s differences are one of its strengths: don’t forget to take advantage of this strength in your focus groups.


Running short on time? Narrow down your focus group questions

We’ve written elsewhere about the most effective focus group questions, including Probing, Follow-up, and Exit questions. But what if you don’t have the time to craft and exhaustively analyze feedback from a full-scale focus group?

David Pitre advocates using a rapid-fire approach that gives the organization the benefit of focus group feedback without “the baggage associated with a comprehensive study.”

He recommends setting a single statement that summarizes what you’re trying to learn (“what do employees think about a recent HR announcement?”), settling on a venue (online is okay), narrowing participants to a certain type (for example, managers with more than one year’s experience), and including just a few questions closely related to your single statement. This is all about rapid results, and David's overview is a good guide if you are pressed for time.

Whether you are conducting a rapid-fire or in-depth focus group initiative, don’t forget to let participants know in advance that you genuinely want their views and that you won’t stifle the discussion. Also, remember to share results afterward, especially where employees are involved. That’s the best way to prove to participants that they truly have been heard -- and you’ll also increase the likelihood that they’ll agree to participate again in the future.

What are the types of focus groups?


Two-way focus groups

A two-way focus group is made up of two separate groups, with one group watching as the other answers the questions being put forward by the moderator. The purpose of this is that it allows one group insight into what another group is thinking and feeling. This is beneficial as it often leads to the changing of preconceived ideas, attitudes, and opinions.

Dual-moderator focus groups

This type of focus group uses two moderators, each with a different responsibility. The first moderator is tasked with ensuring the smooth running of the session, and the second with making sure that each topic gets discussed.

A dual-moderator focus group increases levels of productivity significantly by guaranteeing that the group doesn’t get distracted from its main purpose and that all important issues get covered.

Duelling-moderator focus groups

Unlike dual-moderator focus groups, dueling-moderator focus groups incorporate two opposing moderators. Instead of working alongside one another to ensure the efficiency of a group, these two moderators put forth clashing opinions. By doing so, it opens the door to new discussions, ideas, and ways of thinking.

Client focus groups

This focus group allows the client who orchestrated the group to sit in on it, providing them more control over the matters they want to see discussed. This opportunity to sway the discussion towards the main points at hand is especially useful to clients if the group begins to veer off-topic.

Respondent-moderator focus groups

Respondent-moderator style focus groups are utilized to provide one (or more) of the participants the opportunity to act in the role of moderator. A common problem in focus groups is that the participants are often swayed by the manner in which a question is asked. This type of focus group prevents this and allows for authentic, honest responses from participants.

Mini focus groups

A mini-focus group is used in those circumstances where a smaller group is seen as being more effective in dealing with a certain topic. A regular focus group includes eight to 12 participants while a mini group only has four or five.

Teleconference focus groups

With the rise of remote working and advancements in technology, teleconference groups are being utilized in situations where a group can’t meet face to face. Although it may not be as effective as meeting in person, teleconference focus groups can still be beneficial for dealing with certain issues.

For example, if the main purpose of the group is due to some type of company conflict, and participants want to communicate this problem to management, then teleconferencing can be an effective way to do so.

Online focus groups

Similar to teleconference focus groups, all participants are able to communicate online from anywhere in the world. Generally, those taking part in online focus groups will be divided into three separate groups; moderator, participant, and observer.

These groups are unique as they allow observers to have a separate chat session amongst themselves that only the moderator has access to.

Top Tips & Traps – Employee Focus Groups

Advantages of focus groups?

  • Clarify and test preconceived notions and findings
  • Understand met and unmet needs
  • Hear customer feedback in their own words and voices
  • Uncover ideas and issues that initially may nay not have been considered – but are important to the customer
  • Discover the decision-making process
  • Have the flexibility to dive deeper into issues that come up during the discussion
  • Take control and steer the discussion
  • Involve the client for more credibility
  • Develop ideas with co-creation
  • How long should a focus group last?

It’s difficult to pinpoint how long a focus group should last as it is dependent on the type of topics being discussed and how much insight and information is required. However, the average focus group will last somewhere from one to two hours.

In certain situations, if the conversation requires further discussion, participants may be asked to stay on for longer than the allotted time. Those taking part in the group should be notified in advance as to how long the group is expected to run so that they can plan accordingly.

Focus groups where children are concerned should be significantly shorter. Young children have very small attention spans and this should be taken into consideration when deciding on a time frame for their group.

Older children are capable of staying focused for longer but these groups should still run for less time than adult groups.

The importance of focus groups

Focus groups are one of the most beneficial and commonly used market research methods. These groups are important as they provide organizations with qualitative data and valuable insight into the attitudes, perceptions, and opinions of their customers.

Similarly, focus groups are an effective method for gaining a true understanding of how employees feel about a certain topic as it gives them the opportunity to share their thoughts freely among other participants. Unlike surveys or questionnaires, focus groups allow brands to obtain a wealth of vital information in a short time span, usually just one or two hours.

Most importantly, any valuable insights obtained from focus groups can be utilized by organizations to make informed business decisions and to take the necessary steps to ensure the continued growth and success of their product, service, or brand.

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