Top Pitfalls in Planning and Executing Effective Focus Groups

By: Gina Boedeker

Focus groups are one of the most effective ways to hear directly from your customers, in their voices, about what they think about the product or service your company offers. Executed well, these are a tremendous way to gather market intelligence.

However, there are common pitfalls in the planning and execution of focus groups that lead to a less-than-stellar experience for your customers. Be aware of these pitfalls to create an event that will get you the feedback you need while creating a positive experience for your customers or target audience.

Top Pitfalls

1. Not having well-defined objectives: You must know the objectives for the focus group from the outset of planning your event. Write out your key objective and the research questions you want answered, and share them with key stakeholders so they can weigh in with their input. It’s too late when the responses have been analyzed to realize that you don’t have alignment on what you wanted to learn from the participants. Be clear about the objectives and get buy-in as needed. Begin with the end in mind.

2. Not having the right people in the seats: Not all participants are created equally. Spend time in the planning phase to determine who, exactly, would most help you meet your goals. Determine demographic, psychographic, geographic and behavioral considerations to build your ideal pool of participants. 

3. Wanting to add ‘just a few more questions’: I’ve seen well-defined objectives turn into an absolute mess of a script when teams begin adding all the questions they received from internal departments (e.g., sales, marketing, operations, leadership, product development, etc.).

While getting buy-in is important, everyone and their brother will want to ask their questions to the participants. Explain the objectives and hold your ground. Do not add questions that don’t tie into the overall objective or research questions you need answered. I’ve found this laundry list of questions can be an optional follow-up for participants to answer in a post-event survey (if needed). 

4. Not being prepared: If you don’t have a solid script with an agenda that’s planned out and practiced from the first to the last minute, your participants will be able to tell. Write the script in advance, and practice it by saying it out loud. Know how long it will take for each section of the script. Practice sharing your screen (either in person or in a virtual format) if that’s a part of the focus group. Expect technical glitches, and have a plan in place ahead of time.

I don’t run a focus group without someone on my team who has the slides I’m showing and the script I’ve written and has been through a practice run with me should anything happen. And yes, things can happen. Be prepared.

5. Not setting expectations effectively (or meeting them): Always start a focus group by setting the stage with the participants about what the research goals are and what they can expect in the time that they’ll be with you. Take the time to walk them through the agenda so they know exactly what will be covered and how long each topic will be discussed.

I always set the stage on what they can expect from me as a moderator. I let them know it’s my job to make sure I hear from everyone. So what does that mean? If they aren’t answering, I’ll call on them. If they’re talking too much, I’ll tell them they’re talking too much (because I need to make sure I have enough time to hear from everyone). I usually make light of this at the beginning and say, “I apologize in advance if I have to, quote, ‘Shut them up (nicely),'” and then it’s not at all awkward when it inevitably happens. 

Explain everything that will happen so they’re prepared. Then, make sure you hold to the expectations. Stay on task, stay on time and keep participants focused. 

6. Not keeping the end in mind: In step one, you’re defining your objectives and research questions. At the end of the focus group, you’ll do something with the information you received. Always have this in mind; what do you want to be able to present, and what do you want to be able to say about the feedback you received?

When you’re thinking with the end in mind, you’ll know that your script has all the questions you need answered. You’ll make sure the agenda allows enough time for you to cover all the questions. If you can’t get to everything, you’ll know in advance that you need to have pre- or post-focus-group surveys to fill in those gaps.

When I’m presenting data at the end of a focus group, I want all the anecdotal examples that were shared by participants, but I also want to have as much quantifiable data as possible to share in my results. Consider this when you write your script: You can ask rating questions throughout the presentation and ask participants to further explain their answers so you can easily summarize “8 out of 10 participants like ‘X’ feature.” Know what the final output of your presentation will be, and plan accordingly.

Focus groups are an extremely effective way to engage with potential customers and gather market feedback. Avoid these common pitfalls to ensure yours runs smoothly, you get the information you need and your target audience leaves with a more favorable impression of you than they had when they joined.