We often receive inquiries about focus groups. In common use for many years in corporate America, their popularity has migrated into the non-profit sector. However, we don't always recommend focus groups as part of the strategic planning process, and clients wonder why.
Focus groups have been a common research tool in corporate America, but they may not always be necessary for your organization.
The first and most important reason is that, unlike telephone surveys, they are not statistically reliable. If the research is going to be used to make significant management decisions--such as whether or not to move ahead with a building project--the numbers have to be accurate. Focus groups do not yield the hard quantitative data that elected officials, grant reviewers, and other funders seek.
There are other considerations as well. It is difficult to recruit individuals who do not use the library, and discussions with current library customers do not always yield any new insights. In addition, focus group recruitment is labor intensive, and since libraries are not in the position to pay recruits, attendance is unpredictable. Librarians can put a lot of effort into preparations and still have disappointing results.
Despite the negatives, there are circumstances in which focus groups can be useful. For reactions to a new service, to explore opinions about art for a marketing campaign, or to hear from customers about their experiences, focus groups could be well worth the effort. At all times, to be successful, focus groups require a skilled, unbiased facilitator working from a discussion guide to keep the group on track and to manage very vocal participants who have the potential to drown out everyone else in the room.
To focus or not to focus? What have been your experiences using focus groups?