Fantastic Focus Groups-A Key to a Successful Marketing & Communication Strategy

focus-groupGathering stakeholder input is a critical part of your communications, PR and marketing strategy process.  As PR and communication practitioners, we can make some assumptions about how well our organization is relating to its stakeholders, but directly facilitating feedback from your stakeholders is the only way you can accurately gauge the success (or challenges) of your efforts.

Focus groups are a great way to generate in-depth, valuable feedback from each of your stakeholder groups.  Focus groups allow for thoughtful discussion on the areas that you are evaluating in your organization’s communications, marketing and PR.  Surveys are useful for gauging behaviors and preferences of your stakeholders and are encouraged to be used in tandem with your focus group research.

When planning focus groups, ensure that your focus groups are just that…focused! You are asking these individuals–from their stakeholder perspective–to answer questions that will provide you valuable information about your organization’s communications. To achieve this, guarantee that you:

  • Ensure that each focus group member is sent an invitation well in advance of the meeting, and that the time, date, location and purpose of the focus group meeting are clearly stated in the invitation.
  • DO schedule focus group meetings at a time and location that is feasible for each stakeholder group. For example, avoid scheduling focus group meetings with teachers during instructional or non-contractual hours. Do provide parent and community members focus group options of daytime and evening hours.
  • Be aware of the Brown Act when scheduling focus groups with elected officials from the same government (your school board, the city council) to avoid violations—this may require scheduling individual interviews instead, or two separate focus group meetings for each group.
  • Plan no more than one hour for each focus group meeting. This will allow enough time for thorough responses, but is short enough for individuals’ busy schedules.
  • Develop the same questions for each focus group but make adjustments to ensure that the questions are appropriate for the audience. For example, when inquiring about opinions about your organization’s website, students may use the site differently than parents, and parents may use the site differently than Board of Education members. Therefore, instead of asking, “What are your opinions of our website?” you may want to start with a question like, “How do you use our website?” to obtain valuable information about its use by each stakeholder.
  • When opening the focus group meeting, set some key ground rules: Encourage honesty, ensure confidentiality (meaning, people’s names will not be used in the focus group report or communication audit), keep discussion relevant to the question, and  respect the role of the facilitator (this is important, because when the facilitator either you or another staff member needs to cut off discussion to move forward to the next question, or redirect the group to the discussion, participants tend to bristle at the facilitator’s role!).
  • Have both a facilitator and a scribe: It’s challenging to do both roles successfully!
  • Provide refreshments for focus group participants: People tend to talk more when they’re not hungry…and people naturally like to talk over food!

Next, prepare your focus group, interview and survey questions based on your communications/PR research goals.  Here are some examples:

  • What are the strengths of ABC organization?  Keep this broad–the PR/communication strengths will be mentioned by participants in this discussion, but it’s important to learn the other organizational strengths, from their perspective, to tie them to the PR/communication strategy, where applicable.
  • What are its challenges?  Again, keep this broad–PR/communication challenges will ultimately be highlighted here, and there may be trends in organizational challenges that may link back to PR/communication challenges.
  • How do you receive news and information about ABC organization? Which do you use most frequently?
  • What is working well/not well about ABC organization’s: website, newsletter, social media, email system, customer service, phone system (and, add any other communication, news, PR, and/or marketing mechanisms used by your organization, here)
  • What are some of your ideas on how ABC organization can improve its communications?  You will be amazed by your stakeholders’ creativity…but also gain some insight into what they value most.

Lastly, have fun during this process!  Stakeholders value the opportunity for their opinions to be heard, and focus groups provide a great PR opportunity for your organization to show your stakeholders that you listen to them and value their feedback!

These tips were pulled straight from Sounding Board’s Unleash Your Best Communication guide.  Click here to download FULL guide, which includes more tips and advice—including a handy workbook with a communications audit guide and Heather’s five-step PRIDE Communication Audit Process!

About Heather McGowan

Heather McGowan increases public confidence in public education and improves opportunities for non-profit organizations to succeed through proactive communication and marketing. She provides strategic marketing and communication services that exceed her clients’ unique goals and delivers results that motivate audiences to act, change, and/or otherwise change behaviors for a greater good.

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