Audience Research - focus groups

How do I conduct a focus group?

What are Focus Groups?

Focus groups are a qualitative method of social science research widely used in the marketing and commercial sectors for product testing, as well as in sociology, political research and management. They take the form of in-depth discussions with small groups of eight to ten people who are carefully selected based on a set of criteria, with the discussion usually lasting one to two hours. Focus groups have a long history in social and market research. Although they are most commonly associated with market research and product testing, they developed out of research commissioned in the 1930s by the United States War Department to investigate the loyalty and morale of American soldiers leading up to World War II. The reason they are called 'focus groups' is that the discussion starts at a very broad level, gradually becoming more focussed on the topic as the interview progresses. Focus groups also closely mirror decision-making processes, especially those relating to leisure and museum visiting, which tend to be made in consultation with a group.

Focus Groups in Evaluation and Visitor Research

Focus groups can be used in a variety of ways:

  • Front-end evaluation studies in researching audience reactions, expectations, attitudes and interest in exhibition topics, themes and concepts, as well as uncovering general background knowledge (preconceptions and misconceptions) about an exhibition topic.
  • Formative evaluation studies to test mock-ups, design plans, content, themes and specific exhibits, texts, interactives.
  • Summative evaluation to research content understandings, satisfaction and visitor learning.
  • As a tool in strategic planning and stakeholder analysis/feedback.
  • Audience research studies, such as researching selected audience groups (older visitors, teachers, high school students, etc).
  • Market research to test advertising and promotion concepts, consumer motivations and behaviour, perceptions and product satisfaction.
Advantages of Focus Groups
  • Group discussion methods can uncover and explain issues and reactions which may not be expected, anticipated or even surfaced during general quantitative surveys, questionnaires or telephone polls.
  • Discussions provide rich and insightful information, data and feedback.
  • Issues which really matter to participants often emerge and decision makers can proceed with greater confidence than otherwise might be the case.
  • Issues can be examined in-depth, as opposed to a general quantitative survey which is often
    confined by the survey structure and timing.
  • Focus groups can be conducted by an independent expert minimising the potential for bias.

The number of groups used for a particular project is often determined by time and budget. The more groups the more time intensive and costly the process will be. It is usually recommended that four groups be conducted as a minimum starting point. It is standard practice to pay participants a small fee to cover travel expenses and time, usually between $70-$80, however, for more intensive or specialised groups, payments of up to $150 are common practice. Catering costs, room hire and tapes/recording equipment also need to be factored into the budget.

Selecting and Recruiting Participants

Participants are selected and grouped according to the target audience defined for the program, product or exhibition being researched, for example, adult visitors, adult non-visitors, parents of preschool aged children, primary school teachers. It is usually best to match groups, that is, if there is a group of adult museum visitors aged 18-25 years then this is matched by a group with the same specifications except that they may not be regular visitors. This allows for a comparison of difference based on characteristics of the group. A list of criteria should be drawn up and asked of each potential participant both at the recruitment stage and again just before the group convenes to ensure validity.

Participants can be recruited in a number of ways:

  • Through a recruitment company that specialises in this - the Market Research Association of Australia can assist with names of companies that undertake this work
  • A database of willing participants could be prepared through collecting names and demographic information from visitors via a form left at an admissions desk or through signs around the organisation.
  • Snowball sampling via a 'friend of a friend'.
  • Members or Friends associations can often be a good source of respondents, as long as they meet the stated criteria.
The Discussion Guide

The critical factor for a focus group is preparing the discussion guide which sets the framework for what will be discussed during the group and how the report will be written. A discussion guide usually consists of an ice-breaker/introduction exercise, then moves from a series of broad questions (such as describing a recent museum visit) to more specific ones (such as feedback on a range of exhibition topics or themes). If possible, it is a good idea to use stimulus material such as floor plans, photographs of objects, real objects, draft text/labels, mock-ups of advertisements, and so on, to give people something concrete to respond to, noting in the discussion guide the relevant time for these to be utilised.

Conducting a Focus Group

Each session should be audio-taped, video-taped or a note taker could be used to write detailed notes. These methods allow the facilitator to focus on the group responses and non-verbal behaviour. Usually a letter is sent to each participant outlining the date, time, venue address, contact number and other information (for example if people need to enter the venue via a different route). The room should be comfortable with adequate catering and enough room for the group to sit around a large table. Items needed are pens, paper, name tags (for first name only) and any response sheets, stimulus material and so on.

The facilitator firstly introduces themselves and broadly outlines the aims of research and protocols. Then participants introduce themselves, for example, each person states one thing about themselves (hobbies, interests, work, etc, whatever fits the research question) and a 'warm-up' or ice breaking exercise can be undertaken (for example best/worst museum experience). The rest of the group process should closely follow the discussion guide, which then forms the basis for conclusions and report writing. The facilitator needs to be skilful in ensuring that there is equal participation by all, whilst managing the group dynamics, keeping discussion on time and on track.

Analysing the Data

The best way to analyse data (tapes or transcription) is to identify key themes that emerge from the discussion that fall under each of the discussion guide headings. Where possible, quotes that represent key points are a good way to illustrate meaning. It is important to remember that the analysis is an interpretation by the facilitator based on their experience, skills and ability to keep the discussion on track whilst gaining insightful and rich detail from the group.

Further Reading
  • Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (Eds.) Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Sage: California, 1998.
  • This is a key text dealing with all forms of qualitative research, including interviews and focus groups.
  • Krueger, R. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. Sage: California, 1988.
  • Rubenstein, R. The Use of Focus Groups in Audience Research. Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice, 1, 180-187, 1988.
  • Rubenstein, R. Focus Groups and Front-end Evaluation. Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice, 3, 87-93, 1990.


Lynda Kelly
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