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Conducting A Successful Focus Group

The research tool known as the Focus Group has been around for many years. The idea is to assemble a small group of individuals to discuss specific topics, view advertising concepts or, otherwise, offer their opinions.

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By Bob Roberts, market research manager, Babcox Media

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The research tool known as the Focus Group has been around for many years. The idea is to assemble a small group of individuals to discuss specific topics, view advertising concepts or, otherwise, offer their opinions.

The hope is that the dynamic of hearing others express their views will cause those present to think about the subject in some depth and take part in a group discussion.

Typically these participants are current or potential customers or industry experts from whom you expect to gain insight into your market. They could be suppliers or even your competitors. The location can be as convenient (and low-cost) as your shop or the event can be held at a “neutral’ site or a professional focus group facility. They are usually held during the early evening.

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Who Runs the Discussion?
You can lead the discussion yourself, but be warned that it is very difficult to separate your own opinions from your job as the moderator. It’s best if the leader doesn’t know too much about the subject and can be genuinely surprised by what is being said by those who are present.

The moderator will tell the participants about the purpose of the event, and that the host is looking for honest, thoughtful input. He or she will also lay out any ground rules, such as please speak up, just one speaker at a time and offer negative comments as well as positive ones. A good moderator can also deal with respondents who talk too much or too little.

What You Are Trying To Learn?
Since you’re hearing from only a small number of folks (say eight to 12), you can’t take the results as gospel for the entire population they represent (you may have hundreds of customers, right?) But, what a focus group does tell you is what the questions are, not necessarily what the ­answers are.

Hopefully, you will hear things that you had not heard before and the discussion will go in a direction you did not expect. You’re looking for insight — the “Aha!” moment. You might think that your customers come to you because you’re the best — but you might simply be the most convenient or “just better than the rest of the crop.” And, you may learn more from those who are not your customers than from those who are.

Halfway through the session the moderator should call for a break to let people stretch their legs (and use the restroom). This is an opportunity for the client (that’s you) to ask the moderator to explore at greater depth a topic or two that has come up, or to question the respondent in the red shirt because that person was saying some really ­interesting things.

Incentives and No-Shows
Participants are usually offered a cash incentive (perhaps $50 to $100) and food before the session begins. Even though they have agreed to attend, expect that 25-30% of those invited will not show up.

Timing and Recording
The session should be scheduled to last perhaps 90 minutes. It can go longer if the respondents don’t object and the group’s energy level is still high. The proceedings can be tape-recorded for later study (but tell them if it is being recorded). Video recording is sometimes done, but it can be expensive and may make some of the respondents uncomfortable.

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Follow-up
So you’ve heard from some of your customers/industry experts/suppliers. What do you do now?

It’s important to ­remember that you have spoken to only a small number of folks. ­Researchers use the term ­significance to ­define how accurate survey data is (how likely you would be to get the same results from speaking to a different bunch of people).

So, what you get from a focus group should not be seen as an in-depth look at the entire market around you. It only provides insight into other people’s opinions. Perhaps you heard from some of your respondents that your shop needs to be cleaned up, or that you really need to be open one or two Saturdays a month. Use the focus group to see things from a different perspective — look for the “Aha!” moment, as ­mentioned earlier.

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Big advertising clients may use focus groups to fine-tune their ad creative. Political candidates use them the same way — and to find out what people want to know. What are the ­issues? You can use these group discussions to gain insight into your market and your customers. They can be helpful if properly done.

Bob Roberts oversees all Babcox Media research projects. He has more than 30 years of experience
in marketing, advertising and research, all within the automotive industry. Having managed his own repair shop and holding an SCCA road-racing license, Bob sees the aftermarket from a unique perspective, which enables him to better understand the needs of his research clients. He can be reached at (330) 670-1234 ext. 252, or [email protected].

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