How to Run Effective Focus Group Panel Meetings

KD Singh Arneja
Aug 28, 2019 · 5 min read

TL;DR: For productive focus groups, you must plan for and facilitate the panel sessions effectively and keep the conversations focused on your research goals.


Have you conducted any meetings with your focus groups recently? They are fun, aren’t they? Sure, recruiting people for these isn’t the fun part, but once that is in place, it all becomes worthwhile.

Now, for the sake of newbies reading this, let us throw in a customary definition. A focus group consists of 5 to 10 people, mostly demographically diverse, who you would engage in a moderated setting to learn about their attitudes, beliefs, and reactions to market research or product or service concepts.

Focus groups can provide you compelling qualitative data and early validation of your ideas before you spend time, money, and resources building out or improving your products or services. Having conducted hundreds of focus groups, especially within health care space, I have come to see mainly two challenges working with these mini-cohorts:

A. Recruiting the right participants

B. Having productive sessions with these participants.

And for this piece, I will be mostly referring to the remote video conferencing method of conducting focus group sessions.

Recruiting Participants

Finding and selecting participants for your focus group used to be a super time consuming and a daunting challenge. But times have changed.

Nowadays, you can use online services such as UserInterviews.com that will give you a platform to help you with finding, screening, and scheduling people to join focus groups.

Or, for those of us who have all the time in the world, we can use our time, blood and sweat by scouring LinkedIn-istan, social and community forums or putting the word out on various bulletin boards.

However, finding people is not as straightforward as it sounds. They will most likely sign up for your study as long as you have some dough to offer because let’s face it, we all put a premium on our time and want to be compensated for it, even they are random opinions! Hence, screening out the time-wasters, crazies, or free-loaders becomes critical because the success of your undertaking hinges upon time-to-market, which is crucial as well. And when you have that screened pool of people, it is a hard-earned resource. Using this resource to its full advantage is the second challenge.

Productive Focus Group Meetings

In my humble experience, this is where you can hit or miss with your focus groups. Assuming you got your group ready to go and meetings are scheduled, following are some pro-tips that may help you get the most and best out of these engagements.

Preparation

Have a script and outline on how you will orchestrate your meeting is essential homework. Doing so will give you a plan and mental model on how to conduct the session. You might want to chart out some potential tangents your participants may fire off during the call. While most of it comes with experience, but if you anticipate a few “if this then that” situations, it will give you confidence during the meetings.

Also, if focus group research is being done via video conferencing, best to let your participants know in advance that they should be comfortable turning on their webcams.

Set It Up

Always start on time. Set the agenda by laying down some soft ground rules. That is what excellent facilitators do. Make sure participants have their webcams on. Seeing faces makes the mood of the panel less artificial. Ask participants to introduce themselves and also respond to a question that relates to or tied into your main body of research today, in a subtle manner. For instance, if you are researching how what do people expect from an expensive boutique gym, you might want to start by asking them how do they try and stay healthy today.

After the introductions, provide an overview of the idea or research for which you have gathered the group. Invite questions before starting with Q&A and ask if they understood why they are in the call. You will be amazed at how many participants do not understand the central premise behind the research and give you random useless answers along the way.

You will get a participant once in a while who thinks he/she has the gift of the gab or he a “point to make.” That is where ground rules help. Two of my staple ground rules are:

While I will be trying to provide an equal amount of airtime to everyone, please be try and keep your comments brief and share time with others.

There may be a stark difference of opinion at times. So, please try and not make it personal.

Shepperd the Call

The success of these meetings largely depends on facilitation. So facilitate! Some folks would tend to talk more. You will know in the first go-around the table. For the next question, skip them and start with someone else if there is a time come back to them. Use phrases such as “very quickly,” “very briefly” and so on. These are helpful since people generally respond to facilitation queue.

Keep Participants Engaged

These meetings are not just about barraging the panel with questions. You need to make these calls engaging. Take notes of something a participant X has said in early rounds and then use that to segway into a new question for the panel starting with that participant X or any other by stating “Participant X said earlier that..”

Keep an Eye on the Clock

If you are an excellent facilitator, you will naturally have an eye on the clock. Remember, you are not a participant, but the conductor. Early in my career, I used to get carried away and deeply immersed into what participants are saying and lose sight of the time with many more questions to go. I corrected that quickly. If you can get through 95% of your questions, you are already excellent at this. Covering between 70–95% is fantastic, but you have room to improve.

Take Down those Notes

Facilitating and conducting these sessions is challenging. I do not advise extensive note-taking while facilitating. Unless you can record the video meeting, I suggest having an audio recorder so that you can transcribe later. I have used services such as Voicea which invites an AI bot into my meetings, and it transcribes all notes for me, live with action items. Having a system of record that you can playback is essential, but so is reducing your workload in the paperwork. So be smart about it. Having a note taker will help, but it is hard to tell them to “just listen and take notes.” Irrespective active or passive participation, we all react to discussions.

Close the Meetings Well

Make sure you let the participants know that their time in the discussion was invaluable, and there feedback or opinion may shape innovation. We all seek validation and appreciation for our contributions. And of course, if you lured them in with dinero, pay up as soon as possible! Word does get out, and it can hurt your chances to get gentry for focus groups in the future. Sending out thank you notes later is also warranted. You would have conducted the session awesomely until this point, close the chapter like a champion!

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