Conducting an informal focus group

Michael J. Puican
Michael J. Puican

Michael J. Puican

So, you are thinking of an exciting new direction for your organization – a retooled newsletter, new taglines, new services that you would like to offer, a publicity film for your website. This is the time to get feedback from your audience.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is always beneficial to get feedback from your audience before launching a new service or a new message. No matter how experienced your organization is, you always learn by listening to what your audience has to say.

There are many ways to do this. For major new undertakings such as a new ad campaign or an appeal for a major capital campaign, it is useful to conduct formal research with an expert in the field. However, there are many instances where you can gain valuable information by conducting informal focus groups on your own.

The basics. A focus group is made up of 6 to 10 members of your audience sitting around a table sharing their thoughts. The group is led by a moderator who is familiar with the topic at hand. You can use someone in your organization to be the moderator, but that person needs to be very careful not to influence the participants in any way. The goal is to get open and honest opinions that are not influenced by insiders.

Physical layout. You need a quiet room with a table big enough for all of your participants. While professional focus groups use a separate room with a one-way mirror for observers, in an informal setting observers can sit behind the participants. However, make sure the observers are not interacting with the participants while the focus group is in progress. The moderator needs to be the focal point and the one to ask questions and elicit feedback.

The focus group should be 45 minutes to 90 minutes long. Since you are asking the participants to take time out of their busy schedules to help you, it is important that you make them comfortable. A quiet, comfortable space is essential, as well as some refreshments. If it is meal time, you can serve pizzas or box lunches. At a minimum, you should have an ample supply of water and M&Ms available for everyone.

The most important part. You need to develop a discussion guide. This is the key to a successful focus group. It consists of five or six key questions for the group. To develop the questions, identify the problems or needs you want to address, and make sure your questions get at those issues. This discussion guide becomes a script for the moderator. It is crucial that this be developed ahead of time and that everyone on your team agrees with it. This preplanning can go a long way toward ensuring you get everything you want out of the research.

Running the focus group.  After everyone is seated and comfortable, the moderator should introduce her/himself and state the purpose of the focus group, e.g. “We have asked a few people who volunteer for our organization to give us their feedback on some new campaign ideas.”

It is important to ask for their open and honest feedback, since this will be the biggest help they can provide.

After the moderator’s introduction, ask each person to introduce themselves and talk a little bit about their involvement with your organization.

Now it is time to show them the stimulus – ads, slogans, logos, web pages, etc. – and get their feedback. Show only one thing at a time and make sure everyone has a chance to review it before they start talking. Always ask open-ended questions. Instead of: “Do you like it?”, ask “What do you think of it? What was your first impression? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it?”

Always start with general questions and then move to specific points. The moderator must stay neutral in order to get honest feedback. Remind everyone that there are no right or wrong answers. They should feel comfortable saying whatever they feel. They should also feel comfortable building on and responding to the comments of others.

Wrap up. I always like to ask someone who is observing the focus group to take notes. This will be a big help when you want to review everything you’ve learned. Although you and your team members may feel tired afterwards, it is usually a good idea to huddle right after the focus group to discuss the findings.

While informal focus groups require a good bit of effort, they provide an extremely valuable tool to help shape your marketing, communications, and fundraising efforts.

Michael J. Puican is a nonprofit marketing consultant based in Chicago and a Shoestring Creative Group Network Affiliate. Michael can be reached at or 888.835.6236.

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