Cheat Sheet - How To Run A Focus Group

I had the rare opportunity to observe a highly respected Agency veteran run a focus group and thought to myself, "Better write this down before I forget it." It was one of those educational experiences you cannot ever duplicate in a classroom. 
This leader made the following look natural ("I'll just be winging it") but in fact if you look at the steps it is highly sophisticated.


Step 1: Recruit
Get executives to volunteer people. Reach out to the people with a short email and reassure them that the focus group will not be painful. Choose a non-intimidating setting that feels conversational.

Step 2: Homework
Give people something to think about in advance. Attachments to an email.

Step 3: Schedule & Remind
* If possible, have a third party reach out to the participants to invite them and coordinate date and time. There is a subtle hierarchical distinction between the scheduling and the inviting that should be kept intact if possible.
* Let them know a day ahead of time that you're looking forward to seeing them at the focus group.

Step 4: Structure
* Roles and responsibilities - in this case 1) executive/focus group leader 2) support person/subject matter expert (me) 3) note-taker (someone high-level who can capture the essence of what is going on, not just write things down) 4) timekeeper 5) scheduler; participants.
* Note-taker is especially important: Make sure someone is recording comments and action items for later reporting out. The note-taker cannot be the moderator. They can be the timekeeper.
* Have an order of operations ready - what are you trying to accomplish and how will you break that into tasks? (Example - you are talking about Issue A and then turning to Issue B, then coming to closure).
* Have a timeframe that you stick to. We went with 2 hours and it worked. The afternoon seemed to be a good time, it seems like people are more reflective around 2-4 p.m. versus in the morning they're trying to get things done.

Step 5: Handouts
Bring extra copies of the homework for people who forgot them. Have plain white paper and pens on hand.


Step 1: Introductions & Background
* Go around the room. The moderator can start with themselves. Just say name and where you work. Don't introduce rank.
* Take questions about the project.
* The moderator explains what the purpose of the group is, the genesis of the project, and why it's important.

Step 2: Topic A 
Allow an hour to an hour:15 for this one. Participants are asked to take out their homework and review again in the context of the group. Initial comments are requested.
The moderator:
* makes sure to elucidate the members' comments rather than inserting themselves into the comments - they are neutral.
* injects reality into the conversation at strategic points - lightly managing expectations.
* makes sure that quiet members talk and that dominating members don't talk too much.
* repeats back what the participants say to make sure their viewpoint is heard.
* uses the participants' first names and asks to be reminded if they forgot.

Step 3: Short Break
This can be an actual break or the moderator can make small talk as there is a transition from Topic A to Topic B. Five minutes.

Step 4: Topic B
Rinse and repeat Topic A, but a little shorter because people are tired by now. About 30-45 minutes.

Step 5: Closure
* Do a brief exercise to come to some form of closure, even if it's only to solicit final ideas. Have people write down final thoughts on a piece of paper and hand it in.
* Thank the participants and let them know what's going to happen next in a concrete way. Answer the question: The information from this group will go where and matter how and why?
* Note that everything is subject to change - manage expectations.


Step 1: Appreciation
It's nice to send a short note thanking people for their time.

Step 2: After Action Review
Group debrief - how did that go? What are we doing next?

Step 3: Notes
Notes go back to team for synthesis. Group collaboration site is updated. 


Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is an author, independent brand researcher, and adjunct marketing professor with 20 years of varied experience. An avid researcher and prolific, creative writer, Dr. Blumenthal's interests span communication, marketing, qualitative media content analysis, political rhetoric, propaganda, leadership, management, organizational development, and more. An engaged citizen, she has for several years worked to raise awareness around child sex trafficking and the dangers of corruption at @drdannielle on Twitter. You can find her articles at Medium, and, and she frequently answers questions on Quora. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own.