It is an axiom among everyone from engineers to chefs that the cohesiveness, quality and value of a system is fundamentally dependent on its inputs. The right inputs (however that is defined) create a system that does what it’s supposed to do. Conversely, the wrong inputs undermine a system — and make it somewhat dysfunctional at best, and outright broken at worst.
What does this have to do with focus groups? It’s simple, and just as axiomatic as the truism described above: recruiting and managing participants the wrong way will undermine the process — and ultimately lead to poor results and little (if any) ROI.
The good news is that recruiting and managing focus group participants is not a risky trial-and-error experiment. Rather, it is — or make that, it should and must be — a structured process based on proven principles and sound fundamentals. With this in mind, here are three focus groups best practices regarding participants:
Focus Groups Best Practices #1: Target the Right Population
One of the biggest and most common focus group recruiting mistakes that businesses make is failing to target the right population. The problem, of course, is rooted in the word “right.” Just who is a “right” participant — and who is a “wrong” one? When it comes to focus groups, a right participant is an individual who fits the required profile of the specific market research study — NOT merely someone who is interested in participating.
In other words: the unique and detailed needs of the market research study must drive and determine who should be consulted (i.e. who should participate) — not the other way around. Otherwise, it frankly does not matter whether a business is asking the right questions, because the wrong people will be answering them.
Focus Groups Best Practices #2: Lead the Way — or Else!
If the focus group is not led by an expert — whether it is targeting individual customers or business representatives — then it is only a matter of time before the process will degrade, devolve, and become a waste of money and time.
This is not because focus groups participants will, left to their own devices, start acting out scenes from “Lord of the Flies.” Rather, it’s that participants don’t know how to run a focus group (even if they’ve been part of dozens of them in the past). An expert — or sometimes, a team of experts — is required to keep everyone engaged, intellectually and emotionally invested, and to ensure that group dynamics are monitored, managed and, if necessary, mitigated.
For example, some participants may (often unintentionally) start to “rule the group,” and by dint of their personality establish perspectives and opinions that other participants follow. Or, some participants may say one thing (e.g. “I think the packaging is attractive and appealing”), but their tone and body language may convey a very different, and far more negative message.
These are just some of the many examples of why using an expert researcher is absolutely essential. Remember: focus groups are not just “friendly and casual conversations about products and brands.” They are strategic dialogues and significant investments, and must be managed and optimized accordingly.
Focus Groups Best Practices #3: Follow-Up for Better Data
The best thing about focus group participants is that they are human beings, which means they are full of valuable insights and observations. Paradoxically, this can also be the most challenging thing, too!
This is because, unlike machines and computers, human beings often need time to “digest” an experience, before certain impressions crystalize in their minds and can be articulated. For example, a few days after they experience a focus group, some participants may have additional thoughts and feelings to share about what they like, dislike, and so on.
As such, businesses need to have methods in place — such as online or phone follow-up — to capture this post-focus group information and insight. As an important bonus, this follow-up is also a way for businesses to thank participants, remind them of their incentive (if applicable), and increase the likelihood that they will agree to participate in future focus groups and/or refer others.
At Communications For Research, we capture all of these focus groups best practices for recruiting and managing participants, because we know that our clients do not need data: they need actionable intelligence that drives smarter, faster and more profitable business decisions.