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8 tips to help you run a successful focus group

A colleague recently shared an anecdote with me. She was also a qualitative researcher. She had a client – an ad agency I think – who had rather sneakily decided that they could easily do what she did, and so convened a group using the same recruiter and same venue as the project she had just completed for them. She learned this because the venue had mentioned it in passing when she was next there, and they said that it was a train wreck. The group was the there, and the eager aspiring moderator and … crickets. Monosyllabic responses. No discussion.

Of course, we smugly chuckled. Our job, like so many others, looks like one thing to the casual observer when it is of course so much more. The duck, the pond etc.

So, for anyone who is going to have a go at running a focus group/group discussion let me give you one important tip: focus on the first 15 minutes. Get that right and the group will almost run itself. Here are my top 8 tips for getting the first 15 minutes right:

  1. Be yourself. Share something about yourself, be generous and genuine
  2.  Like Eminem says, be calm and ready. Make sure you are there early, and you have thought through everything you need well before this time. Respondents, like toddlers, can sense when you are tense and it’s contagious
  3. Explain what is going on: why you are there, who is watching, why they are watching,  what recording is taking place and why, and sometimes the reverse of this as well – who isn’t watching/listening. Groups work because of the understanding that nothing anyone says will come back to bite them later
  4. Tell them your expectations – if you intend to shut down the mouthy ones, tell them this (politely) at the beginning, explain that you’d like everyone to contribute, tell them that you will be finished by 8 pm but you have a lot to get through so from time to time you’ll need to move things along, don’t wait to be asked to contribute…. etc
  5. There are no right or wrong answers in a group. This is the golden rule, tell me this in the first few minutes
  6. Don’t rush. You want the mood to be relaxed, rushing people along to get to the thing you think you want to ask is counterproductive. If you shut one person down before you’ve given everyone in the room the space to talk at least a little, there will be people too afraid to contribute
  7. Allow people the space to say something about themselves, their job, their children, their pet, the thing they were just doing today, the fact they are renovating or whatever. This is how we interact with others in our normal social exchanges and it puts people at ease. Plus, it’s surprising how useful it is to draw on later on in the group.  One hour later when Mary is dominating you can turn away from her and say ‘Jessica you’ve got 4 kids, how does what Mary is saying compare with your experience with ….’ This will give Jessica permission to disagree with an uber-confident Mary and evoke more than a yes or no answer
  8. When you share your discussion guide with your clients/stakeholders protect the first 15 minutes. It’s non-negotiable, you can’t cut it back to squeeze in a few more questions. The cost is too high and if you mess up the intro, you may not recover.

What are your tips for the first 15 minutes? I am sure there are some things that I’ve missed.


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