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Using Focus Groups to Evaluate and Improve

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Focus groups can provide valuable information that can increase your company’s market share. If you are planning to conduct a focus group, the first thing you need is a well-planned strategy.

The results from focus groups can be extremely worthwhile and the insights obtained can lead to an improved product or service consumers really want and will buy. While some businesses can rely on professionals to orchestrate focus groups for them, many companies and small businesses cannot afford the thousands of dollars such outside experts require, so they must undertake the task themselves.

Before considering the mechanics of how best to conduct the most important part of a focus group, the discussion portion, decide exactly what it is you want to learn from the exercise. Focus groups can be used to gain opinions about new products or services, so an appropriate objective might be gauging how people feel about a new product you’re considering. Focus groups are also good at finding out how well existing products are perceived in the market.

Once you determine your objective, the next step is come up with five or six relevant open-ended questions to discuss in a group setting, preferably in a comfortable conference-room type of office setting that allows participants to see one another easily. Focus groups generally consist of six to 10 people with some targeted commonality, such as age, sex, income, or interest, who will provide opinions in a free discussion format for about 90 minutes.

To put together your panel, go through sales records, e-mail lists, and business contacts to get a range of clients and nonclients. You’ll need to offer an incentive to participate, such as a meal during or after the conversation, cash, or a gift certificate. For the best results, you’ll want to put together several sets of groups; that way, you are more likely to see some trends emerge.

Set an agenda for the proceedings and give participants an idea about what their discussion topics will be so they can come prepared for the task at hand. Record or videotape the roundtable discussions so you can follow up with participants with a summary report. Make sure participants understand they’ll be recorded as well as issued a report about the discussion. This report can be a simple summary or a detailed analysis.

Each focus group requires a moderator or a facilitator to steer the panel and elicit ideas and opinions from all participants. The moderator strives to bring out the group dynamic, allowing all participants to have a say, and while the most effective focus groups are free-flowing, the facilitator actually should be following a prescribed script or agenda and keeping the process on track. If you are the facilitator, your job is to get participants talking and sharing their insights and opinions. It’s important to lead the discussions impartially so participants speak frankly and feel uninhibited; but it’s also critical to rein in participants when the conversation goes off track.

As you go through the questions, summarize what the participants have said, allowing additional feedback when appropriate. The successful facilitator must keep discussion moving along, stay focused, and achieve some closure on questions. The participants’ candid opinions can offer insight into why they feel the way they do about a product or a service, and that information can be considered when designing a new product or evaluating an existing service.

Do the best you can to ensure your participants are comfortable and satisfied with this experience. The more comfortable they are, the more open they will be; and you will get a better idea about the direction your business should follow.

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