Part II: Focus Groups: An Effective Qualitative Research Method for Primary Data Collection

Size and Sampling

Typically, the optimal size of a focus group is between 10 to 12 people. Industry experts believe that fewer participants will not generate the energy and group dynamics necessary for success. A group that's larger than 12 has the drawback of being too cumbersome for a moderator to elicit individual participation. In view of today's economic climate, some companies are choosing to reduce the number of participants to as low as six. The danger in doing so, of course, is that the smaller the sampling size, the less reliable are conclusions that can be drawn from the research. Caution: While some conclusions may be drawn from focus group research, they should not be acted upon, particularly in business decision-making, without supporting quantifiable and secondary research.

Focus group participants in a session should be relatively homogenous. For example, if you're a commercial printer and your objective for the research is to determine customer need for digital printing services, you might consider segmenting your customer list by industry category. Your retail customers, for instance, will likely have different views on digital printing than will financial customers. While you can include all customers in a single session, you run the risk of the financial customer who's gung-ho on digital printing influencing others and skewing the discussion. Ideally, your goal is to get a representative cross-section of participants who understand the same business vocabulary and who share similar work issues.


Participants can be drawn from in-house customer/prospect lists or any number of commercial list resources, such as InfoUSA. As in phone surveys, you should count on a roughly 15:1, number of calls-to-one person recruited, although that can be reduced, depending on the list. A customer list, for instance, will likely net recruitments faster than a prospect list, requiring fewer calls.

"No shows" are another challenge in the conduct of focus groups. We typically recruit 14 or 15 for 12 to show. If all do show up, we'll send the last arrivals home, with the incentive. While incentives can be in the form of gifts certificates and free products, monetary compensation are most often used in the B2B environment. The higher level the business person, the higher the monetary incentive, generally ranging from $100-$150 for buyers to $250-$300 for C-level execs.

Recruitment may also entail screening participants to make sure they fit into the group's profile. While we generally write the screener script, as well as the reminder script that's used the day-before the session to remind participants to show, focus group facilities also will do provide this service.

Script and Moderator

Jacob Bronowski in his 1973 book The Ascent of Man suggested this piece of wisdom: "That is the essence of science. Ask an impertinent question, and you are on your way to to the pertinent answer." It's advice we've often followed in our focus group scripting.

As the questionnaire is to the survey, the script is to the focus group. It provides the framework for the discussion and it reminds the moderator of probes relevant to each set of questions. For instance, you may discover that some customers have been put off by their first experiences with digital printing. You can cue the moderator (clients are encouraged to give feedback througout focus group sessions) that you wish to him pursue more specifics about those experiences. And like the questionnaire, the focus group script should follow a logical order.

While focus groups involve lots of preparation and thought to be successful, their value cannot be overstated when it comes to helping companies better understand their market and their position in it.

Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte

© 2002 Traversant, Inc. All rights reserved.

July 20, 2002
Print & Graphics
Column #40, 7/02
Printing Journal
Column #40, 7/02
Focus Groups
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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