Telephone Focus Groups
“Scheduling” has to be one of the most common and least loved of all activities in today’s society. Whether it’s setting a business meeting with ten managers or figuring out who will pick your son up from soccer practice, arranging for multiple people to be in the right place at the right time can be a daily headache.
Organizing an in-person focus group is no different. In fact, there may be times when it is nearly impossible to bring participants together in person. But there is another option: telephone focus groups. The same principles used in face-to-face groups, combined with conference call technology, can be just the solution.
As a general rule of thumb, focus groups are best conducted in person. But when that’s not possible, telephone groups are a great alternative for the following situations:
- Geography: Telephone focus groups are ideal when participants are dispersed over a wide geographic area.
- Convenience: People with busy schedules can attend a telephone group at any time of day from the convenience of their offices or homes.
- Inclusion: Telephone groups make it possible for those who are disabled or lack transportation to participate in the conversation.
- Skilled facilitator: A highly skilled focus group facilitator can be enlisted from virtually anywhere when one is not available locally.
- Limited budget: Telephone focus groups are more economical than face-to face groups since costs such as meeting rooms, food, baby-sitter, travel, etc. are not incurred.
For the most part, telephone groups adhere to the same principles as in-person groups. They are open-ended discussions with small groups of people led by a skilled facilitator. The question guide is prepared with as much care and the same rules of confidentiality apply. The group is recorded and proceedings transcribed and analyzed just as traditional focus groups. But there are a few differences based on the different communication medium.
Telephone groups are generally smaller in number and shorter in length than face-to-face groups: three to five participants instead of five to seven, and 40 to 50 minutes instead of 60 to 90 minutes. The reasons: 1) it’s hard to maintain participants’ attention on the phone for longer than an hour, and 2) it can be difficult to manage a large group when visual cues are not available.
Telephone focus groups require more structure than face-to-face groups. It’s hard to tell when someone wants to make a comment or is completely befuddled when you can’t see facial expressions and body language. And some people, like myself, have a harder time understanding what they hear without visual cues.
To help participants track the discussion, I send out the question guide in advance so they can “see” the questions as we move through the discussion. It also gives them an opportunity to think about their responses in advance, allowing for more complex questioning and in-depth discussions.
As a focus group facilitator, I like to call on participants I have not heard from—a little harder to do by phone, but not impossible. Before starting the group I draw a little grid with the names of the participants across the top and the question numbers along the left hand column. I ask participants to say their name before they speak. As each participant responds, I put a check mark in the appropriate box for each question to keep track of their participation. I also write a few key words in the box to help me pick up the thread later on when they respond to another question.
The Right Technology
Although the conferencing technology available these days can have lots of bells and whistles, telephone focus groups don’t require anything fancy. All you need is audio-conferencing. You can use FreeConferenceCall.com but, if long-distance fees are a barrier to participation, use a system that provides you with a toll-free number. Every conference call system gives you the option of recording the call. For a small fee you will receive a CD of the recording, or some companies make the conference call recording accessible by phone or computer free of charge.
The ground rules for telephone focus groups are similar to in-person groups: one person talks at a time, everyone respects the rights of others to speak, there are no right or wrong answers, and all cell phones are turned off during the discussion. In addition, if I hear any background noise, I ask people to mute their phones when they are not speaking. I also request that participants not answer emails, drive their cars, or clip their dog’s toenails while participating in the group. (I once had a woman ask me if it would be all right to participate in the focus group while she took her husband out for his birthday. For her husband’s sake I said, “No!!”)
Lastly, telephone focus groups offer a slight edge over in-person groups in a handful of ways:
- Increased anonymity: The absence of visual contact creates psychological comfort for some people who are shy or have a difficult time speaking up in an in-person group.
- Informality: Participants like the fact they don’t need to “dress-up” for telephone groups.
- Better attendance: The no-show rate is much lower for telephone groups because there are generally fewer barriers.
- More focus: Due to decreased visual stimuli, there are less disruptions, sidebar conversations, and repetition in the discussion.
- Cost-effectiveness: Telephone focus groups are more economical than face-to face groups since costs such as meeting rooms, food, babysitter, travel, etc. are not incurred.
So the next time focus groups seem out-of the question because participants are far apart or too busy to attend, think again. The answer may be only a phone call away!
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