I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of the traditional focus group — when something becomes a running gag on The Simpsons it’s pretty clear that it has had its day in the sun. But the fact is that clients want them and to be fair, they can provide good information. The key is how you devise them.
The central problem with traditional focus groups are that they’ve become a fixture in the minds of consumers. The result is that they have clear cognitive models of what to do when they’re part of focus groups and the answers they provide become canned and sterile. Instead, providing a completely different atmosphere, staging, and set of processes puts the participants into a more engaged, more creative state of mind. By changing the dynamics of the focus group, participants think and respond differently, providing information that is much richer and thus, more actionable and profitable.
Step 1: The Discussion before the Discussion
Before the primary conversation begins, it is helpful set the mood and get people relaxed with a brief pre-discussion, preferably around a meal. This is not just courtesy. Human beings are hardwired to respond to the act of sharing a meal. In every society, gathering around food signals trust and intimacy, promoting honest, open interactions with each other. Beginning the focus group around a substantial meal (not simply snacks) people are more apt to talk freely getting them primed for discussion. This is also a good time to start informally discussing the main topic of the evening.
Introductions, personal stories, and an overview of the discussion should be emphasized during this phase. If topics come up that will be revisited during the main discussion it is fine, but the moderator should redirect the conversation so that not all the information is revealed early on. Allowing the participants to start talking primes them to provide more expansive, clear, and detailed responses during the main discussion.
During this initial phase, no camera is used because the goal is to get participants into a relaxed, conversational state of mind. By eliminating the camera, there is no threat of “performance” and participants become comfortable with each other and the moderator. Since valuable information will no doubt begin to emerge at this stage, and since no camera is recording the event, it is imperative that the facilitator be a skilled note taker.
Step 2: The Main Event
In the primary discussion area, changing the setting will alter how information is captured and relayed to the clients. There are no hidden cameras and no two-way mirrors. Cameras are set up in unobtrusive locations and addressed openly when the group comes together. Information is then broadcast to the clients/viewers. Once again, the reason is to be intentionally disruptive to the mental model people have about focus groups. The disruption is interpreted as an expression of honesty and the camera is quickly forgotten. The truth is that participants in traditional focus groups are already aware of and performing for the camera, even if they can’t see it – if nothing else, the mirror is a constant reminder they are being watched.
Facilitation is done using a dual moderator method, where one moderator ensures the session progresses smoothly, while another ensures that all the topics are covered. In addition to ensuring all the material is covered and questions addressed, the dual moderator process helps maintain the conversational tone by shifting the power dynamic of the group. Rather than a single person leading and everyone following, the second moderator (seated among the participants) breaks up the dynamic and redirects the exchange of information. Opening up the information exchange process means having an opportunity for more open and honest disclosure and discussion in a setting where participants are validated.
Step 3: The Follow Up
The final step is to close the session. Once a typical focus group is over, there is typically a bit of time where some participants linger and offer bits of information they felt weren’t expressed clearly or share stories with others. In this model, participants are actively encouraged to spend 20 minutes or so talking with the moderators. The first step is to turn the camera off. The key point is that the end of a focus group represents an opportunity that is all too frequently overlooked. Keeping the participants for a post-discussion phase often captures pieces of information that go unspoken or unarticulated during the main discussion.