Qualitative research conducted by professionals doesn't come cheap. Tom Greenbaum shows you how to do it yourself, at a big saving

Consider this: you are planning your next campaign and would like to learn what your constituents think about a series of issues. You could hire a market research company to conduct a poll or run a series of focus groups, but that can be very expensive. So how can you get this information more affordably? You can do it yourself.

Clearly, any research you do yourself on a small budget will have limitations when compared to studies conducted by professionals, but if you are seeking some general guidance about important topics of interest, you can get very good information at a fraction of the cost.

The first question to address is whether to conduct a poll (quantitative research) or implement focus groups, which are a type of qualitative research. Polls are intended to generate lots of numbers, such as the percentage of people who feel this way or that, and normally involve large samples, with 500 to 1,000 interviews not uncommon.

On the other hand, focus groups are generally conducted among small groups (normally six to 10 people) and are intended to learn about general attitudes, and the reasons why people feel the way they do about a particular topic. Focus groups are much easier to conduct for the amateur and are normally the methodology of choice for that reason. Also, they can be conducted for a relatively small amount of money compared to a quantitative (poll) study.

Follow the tools outlined here, and almost any novice should be able to conduct this type of research.

Definition of a focus group

A group of 6-10 carefully selected individuals is led by a moderator in a meticulously organised discussion lasting approximately two hours. The goal is to explore the general attitudes of the participants to the topics selected for inclusion in the session. Focus groups are intended to generate macro information, whereas quantitative research seeks to provide micro information.

Number and types of groups to be conducted

There is no rule as to the number of focus groups to be conducted on a specific topic. A minimum of four sessions are normally conducted, but the maximum will depend on the different constituent groups that must be included in the research. This raises one of the most important issues relative to the implementation of focus groups: the definition of the participants. In any focus group session it is vital that the composition of the group is as homogeneous as possible in terms of key demographic characteristics. For example, if health care were the topic, there would be major differences in attitudes between rich and poor, households with and without children, and participants who are under 35 compared to those over 65. Not only will the participants have different views on a topic, but getting participants to share their attitudes will be much easier if they are not placed in an environment where some might be intimidated by others due to age, education or status. Therefore, it is important to conduct at least one or two groups with each constituent group that must be represented in the research.

It is also important to recognise that the outcome of a session will be much better if none of the participants know each other, and none of them are known by the moderator. This eliminates any previous baggage that might exist between participants and which could impact on their willingness to be forthright in the discussion.

The keys to effective moderation

Moderating focus groups is a skill that increases with both experience and training. However, if you understand the basics of the methodology and why focus groups work, it is possible to conduct your own sessions with excellent outcomes. Here are the key elements:

a. At the beginning, develop a very clear and precise written statement of the objectives for conducting the research. It is essential to have a well-thought-out ‘target' for the study, which will form the strategic basis for the project.

b. Create a discussion guide outline that contains all the topics you hope to cover in a focus group. The discussion guide is the most important tool in focus groups and is as vital to the novice as to the experienced moderator. The guide is intended to provide a logical flow to the discussion, so that all topics are covered and there is consistency across all the groups in a series relative to the information discussed. To this end, it is helpful to provide a time estimate for each of the topics as a guide for the moderator and to ensure that everything gets covered, but also for those interested in the output of the research.

c. Ensure that the moderator is intimately familiar with the guide, so the group does not go off on tangents, wasting valuable time. It is the responsibility of the moderator to direct discussion so that all topics are covered.

d. View the group discussion as a way to obtain interaction among the participants. It should not be a series of questions directed at each individual. One of the key benefits of the focus group methodology is to have participants react to each other as ideas are presented, so it is possible to determine the differences in attitudes among participants.

e. Use write-down exercises to initially lock participants into a position about a particular topic, so they are not swayed by the effects of group dynamics in which a dominant personality can influence the flow of the discussion. Essentially, a write-down exercise is a vehicle whereby the moderator raises a topic (eg reaction to the latest government health initiative) and each person in the group is asked to write their point of view in 30 words or fewer on a piece of paper prior to discussing the topic. If this is done, I have found that participants will be more honest about their responses than if they were asked to respond to the question without having written down their view first.

f. Finally, the moderator must always be in control of the group. This involves creating an atmosphere in which participants know who is directing the discussion and who will determine when it is time to move on to the next topic. A key to this is to maintain strong eye contact with all participants and to demonstrate confidence in the role of focus group leader by having a good grasp of the subject matter and a firm grip on the guide content.

In summary, it is definitely possible to conduct your own focus groups. Hopefully, these tips will make for more productive research.

Tom Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus