How Your Marketing Plans Can Benefit from Focus Groups: Getting Beneath the Surface Data


We recently discussed how alumni surveys can unlock secrets to your marketing success, and we offered some guidelines on survey design for any constituent group. These surveys will likely present you with loads of good data, and you may be eager to take it a step further: tapping into the underlying thoughts and motivations of your constituents.

Quantitative research (a survey) is a great approach for measuring opinions and perceptions in real numbers. What about digging beneath the numbers, though—to the heart of those opinions and perceptions? For this you need qualitative research. Open-ended questions and comment fields on your survey are a great way to add qualitative value and glean insights about the numbers. To take this to the next level, though—to gain understanding—there’s no substitute for the timeless practice of meeting face-to-face.

A focus group is basically what the name implies: a selected group of individuals sharing their thoughts and opinions on a focused topic. Where surveys seek to quantify information, focus groups seek to qualify information. Similar to a scientific experiment, qualitative analysis looks at the components that form an opinion or idea. We’ve led hundreds of focus groups over the years, and we’ve seen how these interactions breathe life into marketing campaigns.

Here’s to maximizing the potential of this dynamic strategy.

Carefully choose your participants.

First, the participants should have practical expertise on the topic being studied. Separate the groups into those with a common identity—such as alumni, students, faculty/staff—and then further segment those groups depending on the focus topics. If you want to hear about what makes the student experience great (or not) at your school, it makes more sense to talk to juniors and seniors than first-semester freshmen. On the other hand, if you want to know which recruiting approaches are most effective, those freshmen will have closer context than seniors who are now four years removed from the recruiting process.

Once you’ve identified your targeted groups, aim for about eight participants in each and strive for diversity within that group. Intentionally include individuals from different geographic regions or backgrounds, a variety of academic programs, and a mix of extracurricular interests. Try to pull in some of those students or alumni from the back rows or behind-the-scenes staff who you don’t know as well. If your groups are made up entirely of student leaders, outstanding alumni, or the most vocal faculty, you may be missing some insights hidden in the crowds.

Carefully choose your moderator(s).

A focus group should always foster open discussion with freedom to express real opinions. If a moderator (the discussion leader) is biased or relationally connected to participants, this may limit the freedom of the interaction. In such cases, the moderator may (intentionally or unintentionally) gloss over underlying negatives, or participants may avoid sharing what they fear would be viewed as criticism.

Your moderator (or a team of two or three moderators for a less formal focus group) should be well-versed in the subject matter, with at least some practical understanding—But they need to check their own opinions at the door! Most importantly, they should be highly personable and skilled in asking questions, probing for information, and keeping the discussion on track.

Carefully choose your talking points (and then be prepared to flex).

To maximize your time, prepare a list of questions or talking points ahead of time. Questions should be open-ended and structured in a way that doesn’t box in the participants’ answers. Remember you’re looking for qualitative responses, not numeric data. Think about questions that begin with “how,” “what,” or “tell us about a time . . .” And while it’s important to keep the discussion from going off-topic, don’t rigidly follow your list, either. Allow for surprise input that prompts new questions and keeps the flow moving in a natural, conversational style.

Engage the participants with visual techniques for stimulating discussion. For example, use a whiteboard to brainstorm word pictures. Ask participants to draw pictures of an idea. Have them point to images in a promotional piece to demonstrate emotions or opinions. Use a “laddering” technique to hone in on attributes being described, moving from one rung to the next as you delve more deeply into what their words mean.

Insights gained in focus groups and surveys should be summarized in a research report that explains what you’ve discovered. This report may direct your communication plans, provide language for your promotional materials, or perhaps even influence the institution’s strategic plans.

Stay tuned for our next post on how to analyze and apply your focus group results!