Listening to Your Customers: Focus Groups

Focus groups are facilitated discussions within a small group of people (8-10) over a specific topic.
Listening to Your Customers: Focus Groups - Articles

Updated: February 23, 2016

People feel most comfortable talking in a group when the other participants are like them in some way (usually one that relates to the issue you'll be discussing). People also feel comfortable when the atmosphere is relaxed, so the focus groups could be organized around a farm event (such as a harvest dinner). It's also important that the person facilitating the discussion be neutral about the discussion, and have some skills related to leading group discussions. You might consider asking someone else to facilitate the discussion - for example, another customer, an employee, or someone outside the business. In addition, it's very helpful to have a note-taker to capture comments

Methods/Procedures

The number of focus groups you need to have depends on the number and diversity of customers you have. A general rule of thumb is to have at least two for each sub-group among your customers. Separating by sub-group allows you to create an environment that is comfortable for each group's participants. Having multiple focus groups for each sub-group ensures that you are likely to hear the full range of discussion.

Then you would need to develop the discussion guide to be used for all focus groups. The guide is essentially a script that includes:

  • the introduction of all participants
  • the purpose of the focus group
  • the ground rules for discussion
  • the focus group questions (usually no more than 4-6)
  • the closing statements

Data Analysis

First organize the notes from all the focus groups around each question asked. Then read through the notes and identify common themes or ideas associated with each topic or issue.

Cost

The major costs associated with focus groups might include:

  • any travel that participants, facilitators or you might need to do
  • food and beverages (refreshments make the atmosphere more comfortable)
  • any payments to facilitators and/or note-takers

Advantages of Focus Groups

  • provides in-depth reactions to specific issues
  • when you are unsure of potential reasons or responses, focus groups can provide a range of these potential answers
  • good facilitation can encourage even quiet customers to share their thoughts
  • discussion within the focus groups can yield new insights, beyond the individual perspectives
  • allows the opportunity to prod customers for additional information
  • makes personal contact with customers
  • gives customers opportunities for direct feedback

Disadvantages of Focus Groups

  • small groups may not be representative of an entire set of customers; those not interviewed may feel left out
  • does not offer way to characterize the proportion of your customers that shares a view expressed in the focus group
  • may be challenging to recruit participants
  • requires skilled facilitators to ensure that the discussion environment is comfortable and encouraging for all participants
  • customers may not feel comfortable giving negative feedback in an open discussion
  • can take significant time to plan and conduct focus groups

Example

As a manager of a business with multiple market outlets, you are interested in better understanding your strengths and weaknesses and where to invest energy for next season. You have decided to hold one focus group for each subset of customers.

Utilizing focus groups can be useful for gathering feedback from customers. They are not as difficult to implement as they may appear at first. In some cases a focus group is a better tool than surveys or interviews. Knowing when and how to implement a focus group will help you gather the best possible feedback from customers. To save time, you want to hold these all at once, so you plan to host a harvest dinner and hold the focus groups at the end. You split your CSA membership by the number of seasons they've bought from you (i.e., more or less than 3 years), then randomly select members from each group to invite to the focus groups. To invite farm market customers, you include invitations to the harvest dinner with purchases and advertise around the market building. You ask that interested customers respond so that you can invite some of them to the focus group. You deliver to 6 chefs, so you invite them all.

You develop a discussion guide that has a small set of questions, such as:

  • 'Name your two favorite and two least-favorite products this year.'
  • 'Please describe some of the challenges you felt when you received your weekly delivery/made your purchase.'
  • 'In what ways did you handle those challenges?'
  • 'What additional information about the products could we provide that you would find useful?'

You recruit facilitators by contacting a local college, where students in a marketing class take on the project. You hold a planning meeting with all facilitators and note-takers prior to the harvest dinner to go over the discussion guide and procedures. After the focus groups are over, you collect the notes and organize them by question. You develop a short report about the focus groups that you include in your next newsletter.

July 2007

Authors

Energy and Society, specifically Community Impacts of Marcellus Shale Development Community Development and Public Engagement Water Quality Environmental Governance Systems Women in Agriculture

More by Kathryn Brasier, Ph.D.