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5 Focus Group Tips for Beginners

I’ve been learning about focus groups for several years. I’ve sat in class and listened to teachers lecture about the purpose of focus groups, when to conduct them and the pros and cons about the method. However, I never really thought I’d have to conduct one myself. That all changed this past weekend during our trip down to Whitesville, though. I’ve developed a few tips to help anybody who plans to conduct a focus group.


1. Don’t wing it

This might seem pretty obvious, but it’s very important. After my first experience moderating a focus group, I realized just how important it is to have a well-written moderator’s guide. Even though a focus group is essentially a discussion and discussions aren’t typically scripted,  it is important to know exactly what you want to ask and how you want to ask it. Focus group discussions have a specific purpose; you’re trying to obtain certain information, not just have a conversation about whatever you feel like. This is where a moderator’s guide comes in handy. A well-written guide can move the discussion along, while still gathering all the information you originally set out to find. Plus, you don’t want to look unprofessional or unprepared if there’s a lull in the conversation and you can’t think of your next question or probe.

If you're having trouble with your moderator guide, I found this to be a helpful source:  How to Write a Focus Group Moderator Guide

2. Practice

Now that we’ve established that it’s a poor decision to not have a moderator’s guide, it is just as important to practice what you’re going to say. You’ve all heard it before, practice makes perfect. You should know your guide inside and out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should memorize it word for word. That isn’t possible because focus groups rely so heavily on the participants and what they have to say, the conversation might change slightly based on the individual. The most important part though, is to practice a smooth introduction; this will set the tone for the rest of the talk. Also, practice your questions and probes. Focus groups vary in time, but you don’t have forever to sit there and think of what you're supposed to ask next.

3. Listen

Once again, this seems like a pretty obvious tip. However, speaking from experience, it’s easy to sit there and just focus on the next question you want to ask when you should be listening to what the participants are saying. If the discussion is being recorded, don’t worry about catching every little detail because you’ll be able to go back to it. All you have to do is just listen and respond appropriately.

Focus Group Picture

The moderator needs to understand the goals that the focus group is trying to achieve, so when they hear a certain response you can ask the right questions to dig a little deeper. 

Also, it’s common for a few of the participants to run the discussion, but it’s important to listen up when the quieter one’s start talking. They might not have a lot to say, but their few opinions could be extremely valuable. 

4. Have a Sense of Humor

Don’t worry if you’re not a natural comedian. I’m not saying you have to crack jokes during the focus group, but having a sense of humor can make things a little less serious and can open people up more. Although everybody has agreed to participate, it doesn’t mean they actually will. If you smile and create a more comfortable environment, you’re more likely to get a good response. This might not work for everybody, but I found this to be the case during my first experience moderating.

 5. Don’t Be Nervous!

Relax! By the time you actually conduct the focus group, the hardest part is already over. Trust me, you’ll be happy to sit down and have a nice, one-hour discussion after writing and editing your moderator’s guide. Before you begin, take a deep breath. Expect to be a little nervous at first, but if you follow these tips you should have a smooth running focus group that achieves all the goals you set.

If you're like me and you tend to have a LOT of butterflies, then I highly recommend checking out these tips6 Tips to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.

These tips can be used as a road map to prepare for moderating your first focus group. This is not a comprehensive list of all things you should do during a focus group, but hopefully this gives beginners a better idea of what to expect. 

My name is Taylor Young, and I am a strategic communications major with an emphasis in advertising at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. For the Whitesville community-branding project, my role is researcher director. I'm responsible for all secondary and primary research in regards to Whitesville.