When you’re developing or launching a new product, service, or business, you’ll want to have a general sense of how receptive your target market will be to it.
Typically, this is done through extensive market research — and one key component of the research process is running a focus group.
A focus group is a small group of people, typically representative of your target market, with whom you share ideas and ask questions about your product, service, or business. The individuals who make up the focus group should be a mix of current customers and people who’ve never made a purchase but might in the future. The ideal outcome is a stronger understanding of how the subject of the focus group would be received by a wider audience, and what changes (if any) should be made before the formal roll-out.
In this article, we’ll highlight a step-by-step process for conducting a focus group, planning your questions in a focus group questionnaire, following an agenda for your focus group session, and incorporating the findings into your launch strategy.
HubSpot’s Market Research Kit includes everything you need to run an effective round of market research, including a focus group questionnaire and a guide on how to run focus groups. Download the kit now to incorporate the steps in this post into your focus group strategy.
How to Run a Focus Group
1. Choose your topic of discussion.
Going into a focus group, your discussion should be narrowed down to one or a few topics. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to thoroughly address every area you want to discuss in one short focus group session.
Because of this, it’s not uncommon for companies to run multiple rounds of focus groups around different topics. For example, if you’re launching a new product, you could center one focus group around the product’s marketing and brand positioning, and another one around the usability and functionality of the product itself.
2. Choose your questions or discussion prompts.
Once you determine the topic of discussion for your focus group, create a list of questions and discussion prompts that will help you gather the data you need.
Let’s return to the product launch example from above. If you’re running the product marketing focus groups, you could ask questions like:
- What do you think of the packaging design?
- How much money would you spend on a product like this?
- What other companies do you think of when you see a product like this?
Meanwhile, for a focus group about the product itself, you’ll want to ask about the product’s functionality, ease of use, and perceived favorability.
Also, remember to ask open-ended questions — “Do you like the product?” and “What do you think of the product?” may seem similar in nature, but the latter will produce more detailed results.
3. Prepare your focus group questionnaire.
After you’ve chosen your questions and discussion prompts, organize them on a focus group questionnaire. Be sure to leave enough space on the questionnaire for overall notes, a list of common responses, and one or two noteworthy responses that really stood out.
4. Appoint a notetaker.
Your focus group discussion should be facilitated by at least one person, while another person on your team should be a designated notetaker.
Why? The facilitator’s job is to facilitate — to guide the discussion and foster new ideas from participants. This task can get easily derailed if the facilitator also needs to pause the discussion to write down big, bold ideas and reactions from participants.
To avoid this possibility of disruption, appoint a notetaker before going into the focus group who can focus solely on jotting down the general consensus from the group, unique and noteworthy individual responses, and the key takeaways for the business.
5. Recruit and schedule participants.
One of the most challenging parts of running a focus group is getting people to actually show up. After you select a time and a place, you’ll want to start spreading the word to participants.
Here are a few ways to find them:
Reach out to existing customers.
If you’re doing market research for an existing company, reach out to your customers through account managers or an email database. Since current customers will likely be the first to use what you’re launching, this will be the perfect opportunity to gauge early reactions for the official launch.
For incentives, you could offer free or discounted services or reward them on a customer advocacy program like Influitive.
Advertise on social media.
Looking for middle-aged males or senior citizens in the greater Ann Arbor area? No problem! Social media advertising offers advanced targeting options for you to reach your target market.
You should also think about which sites are most used by the people you want in your focus group. If you’re interested in surveying middle-aged working professionals, you’ll probably have better luck on LinkedIn than you would on TikTok.
Try location-based promotion.
If you’re hyper-targeting a location, supplement your recruiting efforts with advertisements that will only be seen by those in your area. A few examples include:
- Billboard Ads
- Public Transit-Based Ads (Trains, Busses, Taxis, etc.)
- Ads in Local Publications and Newspapers
Be prepared to offer incentives.
People rarely do anything for free. In your advertisements and promotional assets, highlight the incentive you’re prepared to offer — which could be cash, a gift card, or a discount on whatever you’re selling.
If you’re strapped for cash, consider hosting a raffle or giveaway for participants. That way, if you host a focus group of eight people, you could offer a chance at a $100 gift card (rather than a guaranteed $25 per participant) to save you $100.
6. Get consent and start the discussion.
Before you start your focus group discussion, remind participants of the purpose of the group and hand out a consent form. The consent form should reiterate the purpose of the event, outline the participants’ rights, identify the compensation, list the facilitators’ contact information, and prompt participants to sign.
After everyone signs off, it’s time to run the focus group.
7. Have everyone introduce themselves.
To break the ice and get people talking, start the discussion off by introducing yourself and inviting the participants to do the same.
This is another chance for you to learn more about your target market. In addition to having participants say their names, consider asking them to share their industry or interests to get a more personal understanding of how your product, service, or business could play a role in their everyday lives.
8. Ask your questions.
Remember, this is not an interview! Before the focus group begins, you should prepare a list of five to 10 questions.
That being said, it can be easy to tie yourself to your list of questions or discussion points, but sticking too closely to this can hamper natural and effective conversations. If the group takes a slightly different turn than you were expecting, don’t be afraid to allow the conversation to veer off-course if it seems productive.
running a focus group to solicit multiple ideas, so only hearing from one or two people defeats the purpose of the exercise. Be ready to jump in when someone has been quiet for too long and say something along the lines of “Isabella, what’s your input here?” or “Raheem, what do you think about what Isabella said?”
The point of a focus group is not just to confirm information you think is true, but also to uncover what you don’t know.
So long as it’s not too far off-topic, allow the conversation to happen naturally and use an agenda as a guide rather than a point-by-point checklist of topics to cover.
Additionally, you may not ask every question on your list, depending on the direction of the conversation. Make sure you ask the most important questions first, and follow-up on certain discussion points to keep things flowing rather than hosting a pure question-and-answer forum.
9. Seek equal representation from the group.
Remember, this is not an interview! You’re running a focus group to solicit multiple ideas, so only hearing from one or two people defeats the purpose of the exercise. Be ready to jump in when someone has been quiet for too long and say something along the lines of “Isabella, what’s your input here?” or “Raheem, what do you think about what Isabella said?”
10. End the meeting in a reasonable amount of time.
Exhaustion and the law of diminishing returns are real, so keep them in mind when planning the time frame for your focus group.
At the start of the session, in your advertisements, and/or on your consent form, you should specify how long the focus group will last. It’s your responsibility to moderate the discussion in a way that ensures the time frame is not exceeded.
Now, if the exercise lasts for an hour and five minutes and you promised an hour focus group, that’s totally acceptable. However, if you promised a 45-minute session and it goes well over an hour, your attendees could be resentful and less likely to offer valuable feedback.
When the discussion is over, thank your attendees for their time and deliver the promised incentive, if applicable. Additionally, remind them of your contact information if they decide they have more feedback or comments they’d like to provide.
11. Analyze and incorporate feedback.
Ideally, your focus group has provided you with plenty of responses, unique angles, and actionable ideas to help your business thrive. After all of your focus groups have taken place, have your team compile and analyze the commonalities of the ideas presented and what changes, if any, are applicable to the product, service, or business in question.
Focus Group Agenda
To get started with your focus group, you’ll need an agenda to stay on task during the meeting. First, you’ll want to welcome the participants in the focus group and introduce yourself and other researchers who may be present. This step is important as it establishes rapport with the group and builds trust.
Next, ask participants to introduce themselves. This does a few things: it continues building rapport among the group members and it confirms the pronunciation of everyone’s names — you don’t want to spend the next hour or more together saying everyone’s names incorrectly!
Before asking questions, establish some ground rules for the group. If a topic could become controversial, let that be known and set boundaries for how far a discussion can go. If you’ll be asking for information that isn’t normally shared in a group setting, assure the cohort that the findings won’t have names or identifying data attached to the responses. Finally, if your company is reimbursing expenses or providing payment to the focus group participants, let them know how and when they’ll receive their disbursements.
Now, here’s the fun part. Although you may have one broad topic to discuss during the focus group, it’s very likely that you’ll have several subtopics that need to be addressed separately. Structure your questions in such a way that the flow of the conversation makes sense. This could be by theme, chronological order, or the current-future state of your business.
Once you’ve reached a stopping point during the conversation, wrap up any lingering questions and ideas within the group. Finally, thank everyone for their time and end the session.
If you need those steps organized in a handy agenda, we’ve got you covered. Download the PDF below and save it for your next focus group.
Focus Group Example
Now that you have a step-by-step guide for conducting a focus group, it’s time to see one in action. Using the steps above, I’ve identified a recent focus group example that follows most of the guidelines we’ve recommended.
Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service conducted a focus group with first-time voters after the 2020 election. It could have been very easy for this focus group to get off track and into political affiliations; However, you’ll notice in this example that the researcher had a topic in mind — the first-time-voter experience — and didn’t deviate from that topic. She asked probing questions and sought out a variety of perspectives from the group.
Watch this focus group to get a better understanding of how to start these conversations and keep them going to get the insights you need.
The information can now be studied for political research thus helping guide future campaigns for first-time voters.
Running a Better Focus Group
Taking this methodical approach to running a focus group can produce better and more insightful feedback from your participants. To keep your questions, thoughts, and responses organized, we developed a focus group template, which you can use to run a better focus group. Download it for free now to get the most out of your marketing research.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.