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  Using Focus Groups?
I am thinking of holding an online focus group with members to gain feedback about new services we are wishing to provide on our site. What should I consider?

Online focus groups are an excellent way to gain qualitative information from consumers in a convenient and cost-effective manner. Backed up with a survey to get more quantitative data, they are an excellent way to gauge whether your new services will work on your site and are needed before you expand the time, energy and money to develop them further. The key things to consider are:

1) Demographics - Who are the people you are trying to reach? In what areas of the country or world? What age groups? Gender and percentage of male versus female? How many participants? Your participant demographics are very important to consider. Either you will have a specific target audience in mind and should solicit their thoughts specifically or your net may extend wider. In the case of the former, for example, if you run a teen site and you are considering adding a sports section, you may wish to establish the following demographical requirements for your survey or focus group:

Total Participant Number: 20
Participant Ratio: 80% male participants, 20% female participants.
Age: 15 - 19 years of age.
Geographics: 25 % from the Pacific Time Zone, 25% from the Mountain Time Zone, 25% from the Central Time Zone and 25% from the Eastern Time Zone.

The very best way to achieve your desired participant demographics is to employ a pre-focus group survey to collate a list of the individuals who best fit the demographics you are wishing to utilize. Once you have those in hand, you can then contact those potential participants.

2) Questions - What kind of information are you trying to gain from your participants? For the best quality of information it is imperative that your questions not be leading ones and you should allow participants to exercise an openness and subjectivity which provides you with the best possible data. The purpose of the focus group is to allow participants to share what their opinions, perceptions, thoughts and feelings in regards to the services you are wanting to offer. Leading questions will not provide you with the honest feedback that you are hoping to gain. Instead you will be left with the answers that you may wish to hear or which your participants expected you to want.

3) Incentives - If you are asking people to give up an hour to two hours of their time, are you going to provide them with an incentive to do so? This incentive does not have to be anything large, it can be promotional materials, such as tee-shirts and coffee mugs, but it should be something to express your thanks for your participants' time and efforts.

4) Guidelines - Will you have guidelines? How will you convey expectations to your participants? What expectations do you have? Guidelines are an excellent way to explain to your participants what the rules are for the focus group, and how the focus group will function. They can be as simple as letting your participants know that open and honest opinions are welcome, but they need to be conveyed without disparaging anyone else in the room or using profanity to do so. Your guidelines are important in setting the tone of the focus group.

5) Visuals - Are you planning on showing visuals, for example a screen shot of the service area you are wishing to add to your site? Does the venue you wish to use support multimedia displays? Visuals and even audio clips, anything that will help support your efforts within the focus group setting are always helpful. They often provide tangibles for participants to utilize in order to form their opinions. It is important that if you are going to use aides that you have an online venue available that will support those aides. For example, being able to "push slides" to the room for your participants to view and comment without having them leave the room to look at another website or page. You might also consider whether your venue allows you to control the timing of the slides to the extent that you can after a certain amount of time remove the visual from view in order to focus attention back on the online discussions.

Whether you choose to facilitate and coordinate the focus group yourself or outsource it, please remember, it is important to have a well formulated plan, and format for your focus group. This will ensure that you receive the best possible outcome and that your participants enjoy the experience and gain from it as well.

We wish you all the best.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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