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Managing Focus Groups

Focus groups are the jewel in the crown of a qualitative market researcher’s tool box. They allow the researcher not only access to a range of views and opinions but also an understanding of the drivers of those views and opinions (i.e. why respondents think what they think).

Running focus groups can be easy if a few simple steps are taken.

Before the group starts, you should set the ground rules for the group and deal with any housekeeping. This is critical. Simple housekeeping like switching off mobile telephones and ensuring everyone is comfortable will eliminate distraction and keep focus.

Explaining how the group session will work and introducing discussion topics early gives group members the opportunity to think about the issues before the discussion starts.

The key to a successful group is to ensure that each participant is given the opportunity to express their views on the market research topics.

As with any small group, you get a spectrum of people who will react differently within the group. For example, you may get a ‘hijacker’. This is someone who will try to speak for the group and control the topics being discussed.

They will talk over people and the group will quickly become ‘all about them’.

It is the skill of the focus group moderator to acknowledge them and, subtlety, bring other people into the discussion. This needs to be done very carefully so as not to upset the discussion or anyone in the group.

It is often true that some group members choose to remain quiet and nod in acknowledgement as other people are speaking. This does not necessarily mean agreement with what is being said and these types need to be gently brought into the group conversation.

Keeping the discussion on track and covering all the required market research topics requires full concentration from the market researcher moderating the group. They need to be involved, but not influence respondents’ views. If the subject of the research involves the client’s staff (e.g. staff attitudes towards an aspect of their employment), then using a third party market research company allows respondents to speak more freely.

At the end of the group, the market researcher needs an accurate record of the discussion that took place. The only way to do this is to record the group discussion using a high quality digital recorder with omni-directional microphones. In the housekeeping introduction, you should mention that you are recording the discussion and, if anyone refuses this, they should be excluded from the group.

When producing the group discussion report, it needs to be factual and accurate. The market researcher must analyse and report on what was actually said, rather than what they imagined was said.  Equally, questioning techniques used by the moderator need to be neutral.

For example:

At a focus group run by a market research agency commissioned by the education service and working with groups of parents in schools, the market researcher commented on a range of books used by the school.

“I really like this series of books, it captivates children and they love the colourful pictures, what do you think?”

This is exactly how not to do it as it distorts the research. In this example you could not be certain whether the group views were real or a reflection of leading question posed by the market researcher.


Taking a few simple steps ensures that the focus group runs smoothly, everyone is able to take part and an accurate record and report is produced at the end.

Market researcher experience plays a key part. The more successful groups they have run, the better they will be at running them. You may need to use the services of a third party market research company to tap into their expertise and experience and avoid some terrible pitfalls.

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