Changing Times and the Power of Focus Groups

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Song lyrics often give me nuggets of insight and spark ideas for my work in communications. While preparing recently for a client focus group, I found myself listening to David Bowie sing, “turn and face the strange…(ch-, ch-, changes).” (Read to the end for a fun fact about this song.)

I had an “aha!” moment.

Yes, focus groups are a well-established qualitative research tool used to facilitate guided group discussions and get immediate feedback on messages, slogans, campaigns and overall perceptions.

But their value is timely in a way I hadn’t previously given much thought. They can help us navigate the uncertainties of change.

Today’s organizations are under pressure to adapt to: changing social values, workplace practices, generational expectations and economic realities. Organizations need a structured process to help grapple with complicated questions and perceptions.

Focus groups are a powerful tool that can help organizations do just that. While they won’t give you quantitative data – and therefore shouldn’t be the sole basis for operational decisions – they can help you glean insights that are essential in setting a course to adapt and thrive in a rapidly evolving environment. In fact, focus groups offer an even greater return on investment now that sessions can be conducted virtually – led by a skilled facilitation team – without the cost or hassle of participant travel and meeting rooms.

Read on for three key questions – and one bonus tip – to help reframe your thinking about focus groups.

  1. What change-driven situations call for focus groups?

Your organization may be considering a brand refresh or pivot. You may be launching or expanding initiatives to engage new or diverse communities to address equity and inclusion. You may be assessing decisions that are likely to provoke mixed reactions among your constituents. Or you may be experiencing increased dissatisfaction or disengagement among members, staff or patients.

Whether your organization’s pressure points are internal or external, you need to acknowledge both what you know and what you don’t know. You need to be curious and willing to challenge your assumptions. And you need critical insights that can help you understand constituent perceptions, clarify the sources of tension and prioritize your actions in response.

  1. What’s changed with today’s focus groups?

The ability to conduct focus groups via virtual platforms like Zoom has been a game-changer. In addition to reducing costs, online focus groups are generally more accessible and convenient for participants. That’s a win for the recruitment process. You can recruit from a broader geographical area, even international, offering sessions at times that cater to various time zones. Increased geographic flexibility also helps ensure that you can meet diverse participant criteria, whether related to demographics like age, race and gender, or to other specific professional criteria. In addition, you can typically expect high participation rates.

Contrary to what you may expect, interactivity does not have to suffer with online sessions. We help foster high engagement and open discussion in two ways. First, with a highly prepared facilitation team, including a lead facilitator, a co-facilitator who acts as scribe and observer, and a session producer (or “meta-moderator”) who focuses on the Zoom technology itself and delivering a seamless online experience. Second, by making use of Zoom features to supplement ‘gallery view’ discussions, including the use of interactive polls, private chat, and raise hand and react features.

  1. What can you gain from focus groups?

You can expect to gain in-depth insights and understanding of participant attitudes and beliefs, potentially validating existing efforts as well as identifying gaps in services or supports, the need for shifts in direction, and specific opportunities for next steps.

In addition, one of the greatest benefits of focus groups is that the insights you gain go beyond what you can discover through one-on-one conversations or mass surveys. Group discussion – guided by a moderator’s thoughtful probing – generates ideas and responses that build on the contributions of other participants and helps unlock new insights. Think of it as a co-creation process.

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Bonus benefit: the process itself.

The process of turning to face the things that feel uncomfortable and strange is an important critical reflective practice. Focus groups can start conversations about sensitive, complicated issues or new concepts, providing opportunities to see things differently and identify ways to put thoughts into action.

The discussions can themselves be a tool for changing the perspectives of those who participate. Research published in Environmental Health Review, Can focus groups be a tool for change?, found that focus group respondents reported “subtle shifts in awareness after discussing issues in the focus group.”

Delivering on a promise.

Here’s your David Bowie fun fact: Changes was the last song Bowie ever performed live on stage before his retirement from live performances in 2006.