Define your market through focus groups

Author: Patrick Parnaby

Developing program objectives begins with knowing your target audience.

Focus groups can give you information about the programs and products your audience needs. These penguins didn’t respond well to “101 Ways to Use Palm Fronds,” but were keen on “Iceberg Fishing Techniques.”


You want to be sure people are in need of your programs and that they will actually use them when they are provided.


Conducting focus groups can help you evaluate the composition and needs of your target audience, thereby enabling you to develop program objectives and a plan for their realization.


Focus groups can be performed both in person and/or online. For example, you can invite test subjects into a room where you can observe and question them with respect to important ideas. Or, you can integrate surveys directly into your web site’s test pages to get immediate feedback. Online focus groups can also be run with a discussion format through an online message board!

To avoid chaotic focus groups, it’s important to plan ahead.

General Preparation

Running effective focus groups requires planning. When preparing for your focus group, consider the folowing:

  • Identify what it is you’re looking for before you begin. Then, write down 5 or 6 questions that will help you explore these objectives during the meeting.
  • Keep the duration of a focus group to no more than an hour and a half in order to retain participants’ interest and willingness to help.
  • Limit the number of participants to between 6 and 10. If necessary, hold several different focus groups, but use a different set of participants each time. Most importantly, be sure that similar questions are asked in each group so the results will be comparable.
  • In order to gather valid data, choose a facilitator who is non-threatening to participants and who can project a sense of neutrality verbally, in terms of facial expression, and in terms of body language.
  • Put parameters in place to ensure that all participants provide information. For example, one of your procedures may be that, for each question, a different person has to respond first.

With structure, attendees will pay attention and be useful participants in your focus group.

In-Person Focus Groups

The traditional format for focus groups involves in-person and face-to-face interaction. The advantage of these approaches is that your participants will likely build on each other’s ideas, allowing you to access even greater depths of information. If you are holding a face-to-face focus group:

  • Use a comfortable environment and, when appropriate, refreshments.
  • Be sure to scheduel your focus group so that it is not likely to conflict with your participants daily routines. Remember, people are at work mid-day, hungry at 6 P.M., and look forward to their weekends off. Time things accordingly.
  • Get permission from your participants and make arrangements to record the session to ensure that all important points are noted.
  • Save time by preparing and placing materials at each seat. Provide additional paper, pens, and any other items participants might need.

Online Focus Groups

Online focus groups have all the benefits of in-person groups, plus additional capabilities. For example, all focus groups members can access online media at their desk. You can access web sites together, test products simultaneously, and provide instant feedback. In addition, online focus groups have the benefit of added anonymity, which can result in greater candor.

If you are holding an on-line focus group:

  • Ensure that participants have detailed instructions for logging in and using the site.
  • Make sure there is a contact number for participants to call if they have problems accessing the group.
  • Capture the online discussion for later reference.
  • Test your technology before the focus group begins to ensure it will run smoothly.
  • Check any web addresses you plan to use to ensure they are still valid.

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