I just finished doing one of SirsiDynix’ free webinars — what a great experience! Focus Groups: Perceptions for Planning is really about when to consider using focus groups – when not to – and how. I liken focus groups to organizational leadership. To be an effective leader, you need to journey within yourself. The same is true for organizations. To be a leader, organizations have to know who they are, what they stand for, and where their leadership comes from — or doesn’t come at all. Leadership, for individuals and for organizations, involves discipline, integrity, focus and hard work.

Focus groups are a fabulous – and fun way – for an organization to better understand itself or one or more of its services and how it is perceived within its market or constituency.

To gather that “gold” afforded by groups, focus groups need to be approached as guided discovery into the perceptions & opinions of representatives of your community or your university or your corporation. The facilitator is really the guide leading the group as they explore a specific topic or section of their environment.  It’s not a beef session or a forum for complaints or suggestions — it is a group’s opportunity to focus on a concept.

What’s most often forgotten by those putting focus groups together is that the there needs to be something in this for participants. The WIIFM (what’s in it for me) syndrome goes beyond the $5.00 gift certificate you may give them to get a coffee, or the USB, or whatever gift you are offering them. What’s sometimes more important for them is that they get something out of the focus group — that they learn something they didn’t know, or they engage in a dialogue that’s interesting for them, or they just have a good time!

Critical success factors for effective focus groups?

1. Having no more than 3 clear objectives; what don’t you know now that you want to know at the end of the focus groups? These objectives drive the form of the group, the types of participants/thinking required, & the questions or “discussion starters.”

2. Participants (no more than 15, no less than 5 in a “room setting”; maximum 8 online or 6 on phone (at least for me that’s the max!)); a good “mix” of participants relevant to your objectives.

3. A competent facilitator who is an expert “listener” — who can take in all that is being said & not said plus the group dynamics & emotions — & then synthesize & analyze this into what it all means.  If you want to use someone on staff, they absolutely can’t have any ownership of the plan, service or concept being discussed by the group.  A facilitator isn’t a talker — a facilitator is a senser & a delicate prober who can quickly establish credibility & rapport with a group, and keep them on track without upsetting anyone.

4. Preparation, preparation, and…..preparation. A solid discussion guide; a comfortable room; inviting participants, following-up with participants, and following up again; tent cards for each participant, recorder, you name it — be prepared.

5. Pre-think & follow-up for participants. Send participants an outline prior to the session — it engages them & let’s them know their input is expected. Then follow-up with a draft of the focus group results; it reinforces the value of their input & says “thanks” much more than any form letter.

And thanks to SirsiDynix for these webinars!! Richard Hulser’s “Getting the Most out of Vendor Partnerships” and Helene Blowers’ “From Libraries to Lifebraries” are just 2 of the latest FREE (did I say FREE? yep, FREE) webinars on topics critical for libraries by some of the best, experienced practitioners out there.