Roberts & Kay

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in workplaces and communities


The Roberts & Kay Approach to Focus Groups

We're picky about focus groups. We don't have a lot of dogmas at RKI, but we do sigh and put hand to brow over the recent tendency of some people – not you, of course – to call any small gathering of people a "focus group."

To us, a focus group has specific dimensions. It is not a conversation, discussion, or dialogue. We value and use all those, but they are not focus groups. It is not a planning session or a team building experience. Those can be good too, once in while, but they are also not focus groups.

Focus groups are research tools (qualitative research tools, to be exact.) True focus groups have these characteristics:

  • They are based on questions you need to know in order to make good decisions or communicate effectively about some aspect of your work.

    If you want to sell more asparagus, you may have questions about what makes it good to those who like it, and what would make it more appealing to the four to nine year olds who influence their parents' grocery shopping habits.

  • Focus groups are scientifically constructed, carefully chosen groups of 8 - 12 target customers, constituents or clients – people usually chosen from a larger group of people who have the answers to the questions you are asking.

    To know more about asparagus purchasing and eating habits, your groups may include chefs, children, nutritionists, school food service personnel, cookbook authors, primary cooks for families, food critics, senior citizens who like to cook, and so on.

  • Usually, focus groups will be done in sets of at least three, and rarely more than nine groups. Each group typically answers the same questions. The groups may vary in composition. All the groups, taken all together, should include people who are reflective of all the kinds of categories of people who have important insights on the questions you want to answer through the research. Where possible, the groups should be as "homogeneous" as possible so people will be more comfortable.

    This means, for example, that instead of making every group a mixed group, you may want the four to nine year olds in one group, the chefs, food critics and nutritionists in another, and family cooks in a third.

  • The participants meet with a facilitator for about two hours (or less, with younger participants) and talk through their answers to carefully structured questions about services, products, marketing or advertising. Yes, we are using the word "carefully" quite a bit. A focus group requires a considerable amount of advance thinking about the kinds of questions or "launch pads" that will help participants answer your questions.

    Most focus group facilitators have a key list of questions they must ask each group, and then they also follow up unexpected or interesting things participants say by asking still more questions, usually not pre-planned ones.

  • Focus groups are aimed at the "why" of things. In focus groups, people get a chance to say not only what they think and feel, but why. Focus groups are intended to make it easier to understand something that cannot be learned any other way. Particularly, focus groups can help you understand participants' underlying beliefs, motives, and values.

    The information about what is behind peoples' views expands strategic options. The in-depth quality of focus group information makes it possible to act with greater assurance when making important organizational decisions about marketing and other strategic areas.

We think that's good.

So, there must be some "how-to" steps around here somewhere.

Five of them, to be exact, in the Roberts & Kay approach to real focus groups (accept no substitutes):

  1. Step One: Assess

    We work with interested people – you, if you are still reading this – to determine whether focus groups are an appropriate inquiry method for the questions you want answered. If so, we work with you to clarify the primary aim of conducting the focus group research, the number of groups needed, the kinds of questions to be investigated, the composition of the participant group, and the intended outcomes.

  2. Step Two: Design

    Through careful consideration of the nature of the participants and the intended outcomes, we design a 1 1/2 - 2 hour interview guide that will yield the greatest amount of information and give us the greatest degree of confidence. The approach may rely solely on questions and answers, or it may involve asking participants to work with samples, written materials, lists, video images, and more.

  3. Step Three: Recruitment

    Using standard scientific sampling procedures, we recruit participants representing the segments of the target population you identify.

  4. Step Four: Facilitate

    We use skillful, neutral facilitation techniques to encourage all group members to discuss their opinions and ideas fully and frankly. We're good at making people feel comfortable (good group construction, good food, and a good meeting room can help with this, too) and often find people telling us more than we expected.

  5. Step Five: Analyze and Report

    Aaahhh, the RKI difference. We do depth analysis. It takes us awhile, and when we are done, we usually can say, "Oh boy, oh girl, have we got something to tell you!" In some instances, some people do focus groups and make an oral report to the client on the spot and go home. We have to admit, if they do everything else we have described, these still are focus groups. They can even be very useful ones for such things as last minute checks to make sure a product or service now under development does not contain a "fatal error" no one has detected.

    But analysis is an RKI speciality. We like to tell you what we learned, and then tell you what we think it means – the implications of the findings. We like to make recommendations if that is what our clients ask us to do. But most of all, for our clients we like to take the work out of understanding the results. We like to analyze until we can make it plain and make it clear what we have learned. Then we prepare both a written and oral report, and present it for consideration.

Even if you do not need the kind of in-depth analysis that is an RKI hallmark, do run away from any focus group provider that offers to give you "bare answers" and no more. They will be happy to say that more eight year olds than seven year olds were willing to consider eating asparagus soup, for example. Then they leave it right there. They do not share any reasons they may suspect lie behind the change.

Our clients often use RKI focus group information as the basis for marketing strategies, or to provide guidance about needed changes in services, products, or employee management. If necessary, we can work with several divisions within your organization or task forces within your community to make sure that your focus groups do as much for you as possible.


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