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Focus groups – improve your qualitative research and inform your strategic thinking

01 February, 2019

I first realised how valuable focus groups could be for gathering high-quality data when I was doing my PhD. I was doing research into attitudes towards alcohol among first-year university students and, in combination with other research methods, I found focus groups really valuable. I was trained by a professor who was well-known in the field of methodology for social research.

Focus groups – improve your qualitative research and inform your strategic thinking

She was really pushing the boundaries –carrying out focus groups with young people using mobile phones and trying other innovations. The focus groups I ran were probably a little more conventional, but it was soon clear to me that you can gather very rich data in a group setting, once you understand what you need to do to get the right information from people.

Putting focus groups together

In a marketing scenario, focus groups really enable a client to get close to their customers. The dynamic of the focus group is where the magic is –you bring in eight people who, usually, don’t know each other. As the facilitator, my job in the first 15 minutes is to meet everyone, help them learn a little bit about each other and set up an icebreaker that makes everyone feel part of a common group. Occasionally I’ll work with a group of people who do already know each other and then you can get straight to looking at the subject in hand, because you don’t need the icebreaker.

Planning the make-up of the individuals in the group is quite a fine art, because what you’re usually trying to get from groups is a consensus. There needs to be a common theme among the participants, but you still want people from different backgrounds and, ideally, a mix of genders and ethnicities. I’ve had clients who initially want representatives from a range of different stakeholder groups in the room at the same time. But theywill all be looking at the subject through a different lens –so you could be presenting different logos and they will all like different ones. And even if several people like the same one, they’ll probably like it for different reasons. And that doesn’t actually help the client.

I’ve found it helpful to have people of similar ages in each group. Social class can also be a huge issue –people get quite defensive, so you need to consider whether class difference is something that could arise in that particular session. When you are trying to reach a consensus at the end of the process, there can be confrontation as everybody tries to get their viewpoint across. My university mentor would actually encourage people to get into arguments, because from conflictcomes truth, consensus and people’s real feelings.

Avoiding ‘groupthink’

At the other extreme, you can get ‘groupthink’, so it’s critical to find ways to get individuals to have the confidence to be completely honest. I’ve found that if you have academics in a group, for example, alongside people who aren’t from a particularly academic background, the academic will say something profound and you will just get the same thing from everyone else. The other participants will find themselves thinking that what’s already been said encapsulated all their feelings and that they can’t come up with anything else to add. Getting people to write down their responses individually can help to navigate this issue.

Getting people thinking

There are a few tools that facilitators will use to get people thinking about a brand. These can include:

  • Personification: is the brand male or female? What age is it? Where would it live?
  • Imagery: for example, the facilitator has six images of celebrities –which personality reminds you most of the brand?
  • Word association: what words would you most closely associate with the brand?

Sometimes capturing people’s feelings is difficult compared to getting their perception or reaction to something. But getting insight into their true feelings and the real human truth is extremely useful, and an invaluablebasis to build strategy on.

If you are looking for focused, impactful research, KISS has a proven approach to help you gather a range of views in order to inform your strategic thinking and help deliver results. To find out more, drop us a line.

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