Focus group research can help you shape plans

by Helen Randall, HKR Communications and Marketing

Most companies have discovered that investing a little to carry out research—about new products, in new markets, or among clients, employees, or other groups—can reap enormous rewards and help shape the future.

Many research tools are available, from a few well-placed telephone calls to complex surveys. Focus groups are another tool gaining in popularity among businesses of many sizes and types. In a nutshell, focus groups are small groups drawn from the larger audiences from which you need information. Participants are led through series of questions in conversational patterns. The group questioning process is structured enough to cause participants to give you the information you seek, yet informal enough that participants build on others' comments and ideas.

The biggest difference between surveys and focus groups is that the former gives you data; the latter gives information.

Where focus groups fit

One of the great things about this tool is that it is totally individualized to the project at hand. You can be seeking fresh ideas or trying to gauge reaction to changes you want to institute. In some instances, you may want to test a new product. Larger companies might test attitudes of employees.

When you do focus groups, you are saying something very important about your company or organization. You are showing an interest in what your clients, customers, employees, or other specified group thinks, and you are backing that up with an obvious investment of resources. People, in general, like to be asked to give their opinions, especially faceto-face. It is that old adage of being sure to stay in touch with each customer. It is also the very new adage of one-to-one relationship marketing—but done in group form.

The process

Formats for focus groups can vary. Some experts prefer to run very formal, high tech groups with video or one-way glass allowing further analysis. But most focus groups are informal and relatively casual. That is part of their charm. Two factors in the process should never vary:

  • You must assure participants of the complete confidentiality of their responses and participation.
  • You need someone from outside your firm to carry out the focus group project for you. While you need to be active at all planning stages, you simply are too involved to expect participants to open up with honesty.

Your initial step is to contact a person or an agency to carry out the focus group project for you. Many types of businesses can do this—ad agencies, marketing and public relations service firms, divisions of a nearby college or university—and they will vary as much in style as in price. Hand-inglove with the person or firm you select, you will develop a strategy and types of questioning or interaction that will bring back to you the information you feel you need.

If costs are a concern, you might assign in-company support employees to provide target audience lists, handle logistics, or communicate with participants.

In most cases, group sizes range from five to ten persons, and you will run as few as five to as many as 15 or 20 separate focus groups, layered strategically in makeup of participants. You also will need to consider where the groups will be held. How do geographic or demographic factors affect the information you are seeking? Plan to have refreshments or meals available, if appropriate. Participants usually receive some kind of incentive to participate. Focus group sessions usually are audio tape recorded.

Results—what you should expect

Focus group reports are frequently thick volumes you might think you will never read. The truly nice thing about focus group research and the reports that emerge is that the process is one of layers. Reports should be broken down into levels of information for you to use in the most advantageous way. Five recommended levels include:

  • raw notes from each session conducted
  • a separate report from each session covering topics researched or that emerged
  • an overall report of findings from the project, which packages for you information about the varied topics covered
  • an executive summary, gleaned from the overall report of findings
  • a list of recommendations from the consultant.

People read these bookish reports differently. The executive summary is all some people might read. Others will seek out every startling quote. Again, you must keep in mind that you are seeking and receiving information, not data.

Use your investment to your advantage

Remember, you asked . . . and you received! You will not always like what you learn through the focus group process, but you will definitely find you are able to make decisions that have some foundation.

It is often good practice—and tremendous public relations—to let your various constituencies know that you carried out this time-consuming project in order to improve your business or organization. It can go a long way toward creating loyalty or support for your business or products.

Helen Randall is a former ISU staff member who works with CIRAS. She now does focus group projects for a variety of companies and organizations and owns HKR Communications Marketing, 691 N.W. 66"' Place, Des Moines, IA 50313; 515-289-1312.

CIRAS News, Vol. 31, No. 4, Summer 1997