Mass Media Research: An Introduction - 9th Edition
Roger D. Wimmer & Joseph R. Dominick

Brief Guide for Conducting Focus Groups

While focus groups have been a popular research method for many decades, and a very valuable research tool, they are double-edged swords.  The method looks deceptively simple: Invite 4-12 people to a research location, hold a controlled discussion for about 2 hours, and write a report. However, despite their simplicity, focus groups have gremlins hiding around dozens of corners.  Researchers who are unaware of the potential problems in conducting a focus group may face disaster and embarrassment.  Even the simplest focus group topic can become impossible to handle under certain circumstances.  In this discussion, we address some of the problem areas researchers need to consider both before a focus group starts and while the group is in progress. The comments are based on our experiences while conducting more than 2,500 focus groups in the past 25+ years.

Are Focus Groups the Correct Method?

The researcher must first decide if focus groups are the correct approach for the problem.  Focus groups are usually intended to collect qualitative information that is not generalized to the population.  All too often, however, people (including researchers) attempt to interpret focus group data as quantitative information.  The most serious error associated with conducting focus groups is using the method for the wrong purpose. Unless a large number of groups are conducted, focus groups should be used to collect indications of what may exist; they should not be used to answer quantitative questions.

The primary reason why researchers don't use focus groups for quantitative information is cost.  For example, the retail price for a typical telephone study with 400 respondents is about $28,000.  The cost to conduct 40 focus groups with 10 respondents in each group is about $160,000.

Assembling the Groups

A research project requires careful planning to anticipate any condition or situation that might complicate its completion. Two important considerations in assembling focus groups are date and time.

Group size. There are many debates about how many respondents should be included in a focus group.  Most clients in the private sector want 12 or more respondents in the group so that they can here comments from a larger group of people.  The problem is that having more than about 6 or 7 respondents significantly limits the amount of information a moderator can collect from the respondents.  Consider this in terms of time only: a focus group usually lasts only about 90 minutes.  With 10 respondents, each person can talk for a maximum of about 9 minutes.  That’s not very much.  We strongly urge that if you conduct focus groups that you use a group size from 4 to 6 respondents. The amount of information collected is substantially more and usually of better quality because the moderator has more time for follow-up questions.

Date. Focus groups are similar to surveys and experiments in that they must be scheduled carefully. Any conflict with major holidays or other officially recognized days away from work may cause extreme difficulty in recruiting participants. In addition to religious holidays, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and other long-established holidays, researchers need to anticipate problems that may be created by less well-known events.  Depending on the city and the time of year, some or all of the following may create havoc with recruiting: Monday Night Football, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, or even local high school or college sports events. There are also blockbuster television shows or other widely publicized TV programs that create a great deal of viewer interest, along with county or state fairs, major musical events or concerts, and political elections.

Conducting focus groups on Friday is not recommended.  It might be a good idea in an “emergency” research situation, but usually most respondents do not want to give up one of their weekend nights to participate in a research project.  Although some recruiting companies may be willing to accept a Friday night focus group, most frown on the practice and will try to convince the researcher to consider another day of the week.  If Friday night groups are scheduled, researchers should plan to pay participants more incentive money and should expect the field service to charge more for recruiting because more telephone calls will be required to recruit participants.

Time. The time selected to conduct focus groups depends completely on the type of participants desired. If housewives are needed, late morning or early afternoon is satisfactory.  People who work outside the home are best scheduled for evenings. In most cases, back-to-back night focus groups begin at 6:00 P.M. and 8:00 P.M. Since most groups last about 2 hours, some researchers schedule the second group for 8:15 or 8:30 to allow some time for tidying the facility and resetting equipment. Also, the additional time gives the moderator a few minutes to relax before the second group starts.

Just as the date of focus groups can affect the turnout, so can the time. If business travelers are the target group, it might be wise to schedule their group to begin at 8:30 P.M. Researchers need to put themselves in the position of the person who is being recruited and try to anticipate the time that is most convenient.

The Unexpected. Sometimes researchers consider every possible scheduling conflict and still encounter unforeseen problems. Problems created by nature obviously cannot be controlled, but consideration should be given to the weather conditions at the time the groups are scheduled. For example, focus groups planned in the northern part of the United States from January to March may need to be cancelled because of snowstorms. If the research cannot wait until spring, it is wise to plan for an alternative day and possibly an alternative site. Experienced research companies that recruit for focus groups often ask the people recruited about their availability at a later time if the weather forces cancellation of the originally scheduled group.

Then there are the completely unanticipated events that force a cancellation. For example, in the past 25+ years of conducting focus groups around the United States, we have had to cancel because of the World Trade Center disaster, an earthquake, riots after the Rodney King decision in Los Angeles, a hurricane, loss of electrical power at the research facility, and a field service hostess who mistakenly turned respondents away because she “rescreened” the respondents with the wrong screener. Researchers should always assume that something unexpected will happen and prepare for unforeseen events.

Choosing a Field Service and a Facility Location

A researcher who frequently conducts focus groups in the same city usually uses the same field service for respondent recruiting and facility use. In addition to establishing a rapport with the company, the researcher is accustomed to the facilities and is not surprised by anything when the groups begin. It is very important to completely investigate any company used for the first time. A researcher who does not follow through on this simple task may be headed for a major “surprise” in the end. Veteran researchers have learned that just because a company calls itself a research firm does not mean that the people who own and operate the firm know what they are doing. There are incompetents and charlatans in the research field, just as in any other business. Many researchers who plan to use a company new to them usually contact other researchers for a recommendation. In addition, some researchers consult the lists of recruiting facilities prepared by marketing research organizations such as the American Marketing Association (AMA). Do not assume, however, that a research facility listed by an association conducts its business in a professional manner. The only requirement for listing in an association directory is payment of annual membership dues. A caveat in the research field: Beware of any marketing, research, or consulting association whose members can join by simply paying a fee.

After satisfactory references about a field service have been received, the focus group facility should be investigated. Is the facility easily accessible, or will participants have difficulty finding the building? Is parking nearby and safe? If the focus group sessions are to be held in a motel room, it is important to find out about the motel itself. Obviously, a rundown and poorly located motel will hinder recruitment and make it difficult for the researcher to moderate a serious discussion with respondents. Respondents will base their perceptions of the research project on the quality of the facilities, so it’s important to select a facility that communicates “professionalism.”

The focus room should provide enough seating space for up to 14 adults, and the table should allow for easy discussion among all members of the group. The viewing room should have comfortable seating for the observers.

Finally, the researcher must find out about the recording equipment the research company plans to use. The microphones must be sensitive enough to pick up all levels of sound in the room, and a backup system should be provided in the event that the main recording system fails during the group sessions.

Recruiting

The recruiting questionnaire, or screener, used to select people to participate in the groups is one of the most important aspects of the focus group methodology. The screener defines who will be allowed to participate in the discussion. If the screener questions do not adequately identify the type of person who should attend, the results of the research will probably be worthless.

Researchers usually work very closely with the recruiting firm in developing the screener. Every characteristic desired for the participants needs to be covered (age, gender, race, location of residence, type of employment, knowledge of the topic under discussion, and so on). All relevant characteristics must be addressed by the questions in the screener, and the interviewers who will make the recruiting phone calls must understand the requirements precisely. Good research companies will carefully review the screener with their recruiting staff, but it never hurts to ask whether the procedure (known as “briefing”) is planned.

Here are four guidelines for recruiting:

  1. Always overrecruit. The number of extra people generally depends on the type of respondent desired. There is no rule of thumb, but it is best to overrecruit by at least four respondents.

  2. Determine the amount of co-op money to be paid during the initial discussions of recruiting with the research company. As mentioned earlier, co-op fees can range from $25 to $500. Most research companies ask that the co-op money be provided in advance; this is standard procedure. The respondents, however, are always paid after the group meeting, not before or during the session.

  3. Make sure the guidelines for recruiting participants are clearly understood by the field service. These companies usually use a database to recruit for focus groups, so it is best to specify that only one person from each such club, organization, or other group will be allowed to participate. (Otherwise a field service might simply call the local PTA and ask for volunteers.) In addition, it must be emphasized that relatives of participants will not be allowed in the groups. Finally, it is good practice to insist that no person be recruited for a group if he or she has participated in related focus groups during the past year (or other time period the researcher feels is appropriate). This restriction serves to eliminate the “professional” focus group member-the person who is constantly called by the field service to participate.

  4. Just before the groups start, or shortly after, always ask the field service for the screeners used in recruiting the groups. Professional field services will not hesitate to provide researchers with the screeners. Companies that claim screeners are private property, have been destroyed, or are proprietary information are generally trying to hide something (such as recruiting members from the same club or organization).

Before the Groups Begin

The list below discusses some of the major items researchers must attend to before focus groups begin.  Although the items are numbered, they need not be performed in this particular order.  In addition, some items take hours to accomplish, while others take only a few minutes.

  1. Prepare the moderator’s guide. The moderator uses the guide to make sure to ask all relevant questions.  The guide is not designed to force a group into a set pattern of questioning and answering.  Good moderators are flexible and able to skip around among the prepared questions, depending on how the group reacts.  Respondents almost always mention interesting points that need to be pursued immediately—not put off because of the question order in the moderator’s guide.

  2. Make arrangements with the field service for audio taping or videotaping.  Although audio taping is generally considered standard for all groups, videotaping is an option.  Most field services do not charge for audio taping, but there is usually a substantial fee for videotaping.  (Some field services include videotaping in the basic cost.)

  3. Check all electronic equipment and other mechanical devices that will be used during the groups. Assume that nothing will work and check everything. Items (for example, tape machines) that are not checked are the ones that will not work when they are supposed to (Murphy’s law).

  4. In most focus group situations, respondents are offered a light dinner or snack. Catering arrangements need to be discussed with the field service several days before the groups, including how much money the clients wants to spend on food (some clients want elaborate dinners; others want only sandwiches.)

  5. Although respondents are reminded several times of the group’s starting time, one or two people are sure to arrive late. It is the researcher’s responsibility to instruct the field service on how to handle late arrivals.  Some focus groups may suffer no harm if one or two respondents arrive a few minutes late. If the session begins with showing or playing some type of information (audiotapes, videotapes, placards), however, a late respondent cannot participate meaningfully in the group. In such cases, it is best to pay the late respondent the co-op money and allow the person to go home.  Many “professional” focus group respondents have learned that if they arrive about 15 minutes late they will still receive the co-op money.  It is up to the researcher to decide the time limit.  We do not pay respondents if they are more than 15 minutes late for the session.

  6. Researchers need to establish with the field service what will happen if not enough respondents “show” for a group.  The course of action (such as not paying for the recruiting of the group) depends on the reason for the low turnout. If bad weather or another unpredictable natural event makes it difficult for people to get to the facility, the field service should not be penalized.  However, if the weather is fine and there are no unexpected disrupting influences, the researcher may request that recruiting charges be waived.  Fortunately for researchers, good field services that face shortfalls generally offer to reschedule the groups for no additional charge.

  7. There is one rule for the people who view the groups behind the one-way mirror: no loud noises. The only thing that separates the viewing room from the focus room is a thin sheet of glass, and loud talking, laughing, or other noises from behind the mirror are annoying to the moderator as well as to the respondents. Viewers should also refrain from lighting cigarettes, cigars, or pipes if those on the other side of the mirror may detect the flame. This sounds like a minor detail, but the quick flash of light can distract a respondent who may be unaware that viewers are behind the mirror. The moderator on an ad hoc basis establishes other rules for the viewers. For example, we do not allow viewers to send in more than one or two notes during the session (the notes contain other questions to ask).

Conducting the Groups

The type of introduction to a focus group and the amount of information provided to the respondents depends on the purpose of the group and the sponsor of the research.  In some cases, it is important for the respondents to receive no preliminary information during the introduction; in other cases, concepts or procedures must be explained before actual questioning can begin. The moderator usually starts a focus group by explaining the purpose of the group (the amount of detail depends on the reason for the group).

Some of the information the authors tell respondents in a focus group introduction is summarized next:

Handling Respondents

As a rule, people who participate in focus groups tend to fall into one of five types:

  1. The active participant who is interested in providing relevant answers to the moderator’s questions. A group of 10 of this type would make a moderator’s job easy.

  2. The shy person who is embarrassed to speak out or feels inhibited for some reason. This person can be included simply by calling on him or her for a response, such as “Bob, what do you think about that?”

  3. The know-it-all who has an answer to every question and tries to dominate the group. This person can be handled by saying something like “Bob, before you answer, let me find out what Jim thinks.”

  4. The over-talker who cannot answer a question in only one or two sentences. This person can be controlled by saying something like “Bob, very briefly, what do you think about that?” If Bob continues, cut him off.

  5. The obnoxious person who does not really wish to participate and tries to make life difficult for the moderator by making sarcastic remarks or irrelevant comments. The moderator can easily control this person simply by cutting him off, or by saying “My purpose in conducting this group is to get a variety of opinions about [the focus group topic]. I’m not interested in listening to sarcastic remarks or degrading comments. If that is what you wish to do, I’ll allow you to leave now.”  (If the person continues to be obnoxious, it is easy to have the person removed from the group.)

Eliminating respondents from a group that is already in session calls for a prior arrangement with the field service and/or the viewers behind the mirror.  If there are viewers behind the mirror, it’s easy to have a respondent pulled from the group.  Before the group begins, the moderator explains to one of the viewers that if a respondent needs to be pulled, he/she will say something like this to the respondent, “Jim, you seem to have a variety of answers about this topic that we’d like to pursue further.  Why don’t you take your materials and my partner, Dave, will interview you in another room.”  This is a signal to Dave (the viewer) to notify the field service that a respondent is being ejected.

If there are no viewers, the moderator can simply tell the respondent that he/she will be asked questions in another room.  The moderator then leaves the room and contacts the field service representative to remove the person from the room.

In both situations (and we are not advocating that lying is correct), the respondent is told something like, “You seem to be an expert in this area and the moderator feels that you may influence the group’s discussion.  We appreciate your attendance here and the next time we have a group that includes experts in (whatever topic), we will contact you.”  The respondent is paid and sent home.

The goal in removing a respondent is to eliminate the person quickly. The moderator cannot allow one person to destroy the group. Speed is most important in getting rid of an unwanted respondent.

Procedural Steps in Conducting a Focus Group

We tend to follow the same procedure when arriving at a focus group facility to conduct a group. This series of steps ensures that all potential problems are addressed ahead of time. Upon arriving at the facility (usually an hour before the start of the first group), we follow these steps:

  1. Introduce to the receptionist, show an appropriate I. D. card, and ask for the person in charge of the group.

  2. Locate the focus room.

  3. Find the entrances, exits, and restrooms for respondents and viewers.

  4. Examine the focus room for the appropriate equipment, space, number of chairs around the focus table, writing instruments, pads of paper, and other materials needed for the group.

  5. Explain to the person in charge that it will be all right for respondents to bring food into the room.

  6. Review the procedures for eliminating an unwanted respondent.

  7. Review the procedures for handling respondents who show up late for the group (either allow them to enter the room or pay them and send them home).

  8. Check for air conditioning and heating controls.

  9. Ask for the screeners for the respondents recruited for the group.

  10. Review the procedures for starting the audiotape, videotape, or both.

  11. Review the procedures for allowing notes to be sent in from viewers behind the mirror.

  12. Check to see that meals or snacks have been prepared for respondents and viewers.

  13. Explain any unique aspects to the host/hostess (e.g., if a break will be during the session).

  14. Determine how long after the scheduled starting time the group will actually start. This depends on how many respondents arrive at the scheduled starting time.

Focus Group Criticisms

Some researchers claim that focus groups are not a good research methodology because of the potential influence of one or two respondents on the other members of the group. These critics say that a “dominant” respondent can negatively affect the outcome of the group and that group “pressures” may influence the comments made by individuals.

It is our experience that those who criticize focus groups because of the potential influence of certain respondents do not have enough experience moderating focus groups to deal with the range of respondents who participate in the groups. A professional moderator never has ongoing problems with difficult respondents. A professional moderator can identify almost immediately a “problem” respondent and can solve the problem in a matter of minutes.  If a moderator has problems with respondents, the moderator should consider another occupation.

Caveat

This section is not intended to scare novice researchers.  Rather, the intention is to explain a situation that must be considered by any researcher who plans to conduct focus groups.  The problem relates to the cheating that some companies do to recruit respondents for focus groups. In some cases, it is difficult for field services to find enough qualified respondents for a project because the screener requirements are too stringent.  Instead of calling the client and explaining the recruiting difficulty, some recruiters simply use “standbys” for the group.  These people are usually friends of the company owner or company personnel who are called at the last minute to meet the goal of a focus group’s “show rate.”

Does this mean that inferior research is conducted in some cases?  The sad truth is, yes. During our research careers, we have caught several field services and recruiting companies in the act of cheating. Most field services and recruiting companies, however, are owned and operated by hard-working professionals who sincerely care about the quality of their work.  A minority of operators spoil the process for all companies.  It is the researcher’s responsibility to check everything about a focus group to ensure that all is in order.  A researcher should never assume that what he or she sees is real.

Summary

Properly conducted focus groups are a valuable research tool. They are exciting to conduct, and they can provide a great deal of useful information. Yet, it is important for a novice researcher to view several groups before jumping into the moderator’s seat.  Although focus groups can be easy to conduct, they can also turn into nightmares if the moderator does not have enough experience dealing with the multitude of respondent types who will be involved. At one time or another, all moderators will face respondents who are drunk, high on drugs, physically sick, angry, happy, sad, tired, or have any one of many psychological problems.
 

©2009 Roger D. Wimmer

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