Organizations That Want To Audit Their Communication Processes Need To Do More Than Conduct Interviews And Surveys.
By Thomas J. Roach
Focus groups provide unique insights to business communication because they look past individual opinions; they allow us to examine group opinions and the discursive processes that produce them. Group opinions are not the aggregate of individual opinions; they exist independently and are the greatest single influencer of individual opinions.
Focus groups should be organized around social groups like employees, customers and community members. Mixing focus group members from different publics is counterproductive because the point of the focus group is to get the opinion of the peer group, so it is important that the participants feel a sense of community through a common affiliation. This is true even if the members of the focus group do not know one another.
The magic number of participants is 12 because it is a large enough number that it provides a sense of anonymity and small enough that it feels somewhat private. The focus group moderator asks an open question about a topic on the agenda and then remains silent while the group discusses it.
There is no need to record the session. The value of the focus group is that it reveals points of consensus and contention. There is plenty of time for a note-taker to describe these outcomes. A transcript isn’t necessary, and recording devices inhibit and skew open discussion.
Here are some pointers for conducting a focus group:
- Use the focus group to pinpoint issues, but don’t ask participants to vote or draw specific conclusions.
- You can require employees to participate, but members of external publics are less likely to attend, so you may need to invite more than 12 people and hope that at least 12 show up. If you schedule two focus groups at one time, and they don’t all show up, you can put 12 in one group and conduct a small group discussion with the attendees who are left over.
- Announce a time limit of one to two hours. It may take 30 to 40 minutes for the group to warm up, so longer is better if the group will tolerate it.
- Prepare an agenda, but be ready to let the discussion go if it moves into a relevant area that you didn’t anticipate.
- The moderator should try to build rapport among group members, but still keep them focused on the agenda. Some idea friction is useful, but don’t let the tone of the meeting become hostile.
- The moderator can introduce topics, ask probing questions, and even cut off longwinded speakers, but the moderator and note-taker should not enter into the discussion.
- The group needs to know the moderator is in charge, so it is helpful if early in the session the moderator redirects the discussion when it veers off subject.
The value of focus groups is illustrated in part by the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The swindlers tell the emperor they are selling him clothes invisible to those who are stupid. Not wanting to appear stupid, the emperor and his court pretend they can see the emperor’s suit. The opinion of the dominant peer group around the king spreads to the crowds and isn’t refuted until a child shouts that the emperor is half-naked.
Anyone in a leadership position risks the same predicament. Those surrounding the leader will tend to agree with his or her opinions, and if they disagree, they do so passively and with caution. Employees and business associates in focus groups should be encouraged to speak up about discrepancies in the corporate image and flaws in the business plan, and the moderator and note-taker can observe and report their opinions anonymously.
In other words, you find can out what the crowd thinks of your new suit without having to parade through town in your underwear.
Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].