The two sides to every Focus Group

A focus group is a story of two halves, the client and the participant, who come with very different needs and expectations. Part of our job as facilitators/researchers is to bring these two sides together in a way that fulfils the client’s brief and ensures the participants are engaged and receptive.  Our role can sometimes feel a little bit Jekyll and Hyde, a little bit Hollywood actor and a little bit mediator.

Some common dichotomies to overcome

Client enthusiasm vs Participant enthusiasm

For some focus groups, both client and participant are equally invested, for example where we are exploring personal stories and topics that impact the participants on a day to day basis.  However, for many of our more commercial groups there is a mismatch of investment.

Clients are immersed in their product or service and with this comes a strong element of enthusiasm and commitment.  There is an air of anticipation and excitement behind the mirror in the moments before a group starts, it’s a bit like anticipating a good film, only there is far more invested.  Will they like our product? What are our customers like? What will they say!?

However, whilst clients will live and breathe their product/service, for most participants it’s a tiny part of their lives. We often tell clients not to be demoralised if the group isn’t as enthused as you are – that’s ok and normal.  It doesn’t mean they don’t like it or there isn’t value for them, it’s just a different perspective, they aren’t personally invested, and it is this objectivity that makes for honest feedback.

The role of the facilitator is to elevate this enthusiasm during the focus group so that the participants respect and give credence to the product discussions and to demonstrate to the client what needs to happen to ensure there is cut through in a cluttered and competitive market.


Client knowledge vs Participant misunderstanding

Imagine the scene.  There is a new product about to be launched and the client is testing some of the language and instructions to be used.  The participants review this and discuss their understanding of this and how they might use it.  However, they have misinterpreted some of the information and the client wants to go in and ‘put them right.’

The big mistake is for clients to think that the focus group needs educating when it’s the other way around.  This is a classic issue that arises in all sorts of areas, from advertising copy that is misinterpreted, to packaging that people don’t know how to open, to health myths that participants still believe. The key point is that research aims to find out what people’s reactions are to products and services and if they ‘get things wrong’ this is not their fault but a key aspect of the research, to help the clients in their rewrite/redesign to ensure when it goes to mass market this misinterpretation can’t happen.  If you are selling a product, are you going to be on the shoulder of every customer to explain what it is you really mean?  Or will you let the 8 people in the room educate you about what you need to change?

The objectivity of the facilitator means that they can explore and understand these misconceptions in a way that adds knowledge for the client – answering questions isn’t always the right answer, often it’s the participant questions that we need to focus on.


Client Humour vs Participant Humour

Humour in focus groups is important to help relax and engage with the participants and therefore humour is a great tool in bringing openness and honesty into the discussions.  However, the flip side is that for clients, they can misinterpret this humour as the group being negative or even rude about their product.

This is a fine line for a facilitator to walk – and getting the balance right between having a joke with participants and not being seen to diminish the value of the clients’ offerings does take skill and understanding.   It is this combination of humour alongside rigour and discipline that makes a focus group work well.


Client detail vs Participant energy

Clients can be keen to get into detail and ask as much as possible within the timescales.  The participants will eventually run out of steam quicker than the client.  We usually reckon that within the 90-minute standard focus group, you get 60 minutes of really good insight.  The rest of the time is spent building rapport, creating the right atmosphere and allowing time for free discussion – all essential components of a good group.

Our rule of thumb is when planning the questions for discussion is to focus on what the client really need to know and ensure that is covered in as engaging a way as possible.  We encourage clients not to ask too much, and not to ask about things they already know about.  Think depth not breadth – there should be time to engage in real debate that makes a difference and adds new knowledge.

Also, it’s worth remembering that the participants have been selected due to their demographic fit for your main purpose. If you add in extra stuff these may not be your target audience and you run the risk of running out of time for exploration of what really counts.

This is where the skill of the facilitator is key in helping to plan the focus group sessions to keep participant energy up and to keep the sessions focused and on point for the client.  We can probably add ‘motivator’ and ‘plate spinner’ to our skill list!