How To Properly Recruit Focus Group Participants (2022 Edition)

Explore how to recruit participants for B2B and B2C focus groups including recruiting methods and options, incentives and the benefits and drawbacks of focus groups.


In the quest for understanding their audience, savvy researchers will leverage a wide variety of insights and information. Meanwhile, other marketing teams might have more a narrow focus. For example, some researchers might be over reliant on A/B testing. While this approach is useful, what about options C, D and E? And what about exploring the why of A versus B preferences and beyond? That’s where focus groups can help.

While observational research provides valuable insight, how does one truly grasp the full complexity of human desires, experience and motivations? For instance, observational user testing can evaluate what people actually do on a platform or application. Meanwhile, focus groups focus on emotions, mindsets, values and belief systems which can’t be observed. For instance, you might have the most incredible app in the world, but the spirit of your brand drives sales as much as any technical prowess.  

Savvy B2C and B2B businesses alike understand that both quantitative and qualitative research are the keys to understanding their current and potential audiences and quantifying that understanding. People don’t just want to get the job done, they want to enjoy the process. Or they want to express a particular style. For this reason, focus groups can be a powerful and essential tool in any market research arsenal. 

When is it appropriate to use focus groups as part of your market research? How do you recruit focus group participants? Let’s find out.

Focus Group Characteristics

According to Nielsen, “a focus group is a qualitative, attitudinal research method in which a facilitator conducts a meeting or workshop (typically about 1–2 hours long) with a group of 6–9 people to discuss and explore issues and concerns about their experiences with a product or service. The term “focus” relates to the role of the facilitator, who maintains the group’s focus on certain topics during discussions.”  

When recruiting focus group participants, it’s important to understand that these groups are always homogeneous in relation to the objectives of the research. While those in the group might have diverse life experiences and points of view, they also should have key characteristics that are necessary for participants to be able to respond to the questions the research poses. For example, all the participants in your focus group may have the same:

  • Occupation 
  • Educational background
  • Age range
  • Gender
  • Past experience with a product or service
  • Additional attributes or factors that make them a fit for the product or service target audience

Diversity may, or may not, be important when considering geographic location. If your product or service has a global reach, you might want participants from several locations to explore or avoid regional bias. On the other hand, if you’re testing a new market territory, you may want insights from people who all live in the same country, state, city or town.

Focus Group Personas

When defining who you want to recruit for your focus group, it helps to develop user or customer personas. A persona is a realistic description of a typical or target user of a product or service. Even though you describe them as you would an actual person, a persona an archetype or profile of the exact “right” participant

The description could include details about the persona’s needs, attitudes, worries, experiences, preferences and goals, as well as demographic information such as age, gender, education and occupation. 

Personas are often used in design as they foster empathy for specific users and help avoid the temptation to design for ‘everyone. A persona doesn’t need to represent every aspect of someone’s life, but rather should focus on characteristics that are relevant to the product or service and, in this case to the objectives of the research.

The idea behind using personas is to look past simple demographics to decipher what might be a person’s deeper motivations and goals. By using personas you can generate key criteria to recruit focus group participants.

How Many People Should Be In A Focus Group?

As mentioned earlier, the rule of thumb is 6-9 participants per focus group. This number can be adjusted depending on different factors, for example:

  • Study purpose: If your goal is to understand an issue or behavior, invite fewer people. If the purpose is to pilot-test an idea or materials, invite more people. 
  • Topic complexity: For complex topics, invite fewer people. 
  • Level of experience or expertise: If they have more experience, invite fewer people.
  • Level of passion about the topic: Are they highly passionate? Invite fewer people. 
  • The number of questions you want to cover: More questions, less participants.
  • Adjust according to the length (time) of your groups: shorter groups should have less people, longer groups more people.
  • Remote focus groups should have less participants and be shorter in length than in-person groups.

Focus Group Participant Recruiting Strategy

The first step to recruiting is to develop your participant persona and to do that you must clearly define the objectives of your research. This is best accomplished by bringing together disparate members of your team so all points-of-view are involved in the discussion that will define and refine your research objective. Too broad an objective or too many objectives and you won’t be able to dig deep enough in your research for the results to be useful. 

Once you know your objective you can use that as foundation for building your persona. Who can answer the questions that will meet your research objective? What experiences, education, background and demographics must they have? 

Recruiting Methods

Once you have your participant personas and group size established, you can begin your search and recruiting of participants. Here are some research methods to consider:

Recruiting Platforms

A professional recruiting platform enables researchers to quickly find research participants because they have pre-recruited and vetted thousands or even millions of candidates. The main advantages of this kind of platform are quality and speed. By having access to a field of pre-vetted participants on hand, it’s feasible to populate your study in a day or so. Since the platform qualifies participants in advance, this minimizes the no-show rate.

The best recruiting platforms, Respondent, for example, has over a million candidates all vetted as to their professional backgrounds and confirmed by required business email addresses. They also provide participant management including scheduling, communication, NDAs and payment. 

Given their well-developed, well-identified and pre-qualified candidate pool, high quality recruiting platforms are often used by those with specialized research needs or to find niche user groups. 

While outsourcing comes with a cost, you also know your time and in-house resources are scarce. If you take into account the speed and quality advantages of recruiting platforms, you can build a strong case for the expense.

Traditional Recruiting Companies

These include Focus Group Facilities that recruit, other large recruiting firms, boutique and independent recruiters. They all use existing lists of potential participants identified by demographic and, in some cases, psychographic information as their basis for recruiting. Some of these recruiters are starting to use Panels as well. When faced with a difficult recruit most of these organizations will supplement existing lists by placing ads (Broadcasting) when needed. While not as well-suited for speed (one to two weeks for most recruits is sufficient) or when needing participants from a specific industry, Traditional Recruiting Organizations work-well for most consumer research. Many traditional recruiters also offer participant management—scheduling, reminders and payment post-focus group.

Specialized Recruiting Companies

When you need to find participants from a specific profession, a recruiter who specialize in that industry, like tech, financial, medical, etc. could be the solution. While these recruiters might not have the pre-vetted candidates that a Research Platform does, they will have the relationships with organizations and/or panels that allow them to recruit these very specialized individuals, but again, not at the speed of a Research Platform..

Panel of existing users / customers

Some companies might opt to recruit from their existing customer or user base. Existing, experienced users of a specific product can provide excellent insight about products they use every day. This approach might be easier for B2C brands since they probably have customers who are eager to share their opinion about products they enjoy. 

Recruiting, scheduling, coordinating and paying participants takes time. The largest brands may have their own resources earmarked for these tasks. For smaller companies, a cost-benefit analysis can help decide whether to do the work in-house or partner with an outside recruiting organization or individual.  

If you want your focus group to have a totally unbiased outlook, an internal panel won’t work. For example, if participants are already fans of your brand, this may lead to overly positive opinions and responses. For new and less skewed perspectives, you’ll need to try a different recruiting tactic. 

Online forums, Social Media and Social Media Interest Groups 

Discussion boards, professional networks, social media groups and forums can be a source of participants who may be well suited for your focus group study. The advantage here is that you may be able to reach a large pool of candidates for a relatively low cost. 

Be aware that control of your recruitment scope may be a problem in social media, forums and groups. For instance, if you reach out to Facebook, you might cast too wide a net which can dilute quality. On the other hand, some interest and community groups within Facebook might be useful or might be very narrow due to the nature of the group. Also, dominant group members who you’ve recruited for a focus group can have a strong influence that may result in influencing other participant in the focus group. A seasoned moderator will be able to avoid this type of situation.

Participant Incentives: A Must

Whichever way participants are recruited, participants should be paid for their time, participation and sharing their experiences, thoughts and emotions. Unfortunately, there is no one-incentive-fits-all, The amount paid depends on:

  • The length of the sessions. The longer the session, the higher the incentive.
  • Whether the sessions are remote or in person. A higher incentive needs to be paid for in-person sessions since participants are required to leave their home/office.
  • Business professionals, especially C-level and VPs require a higher incentive to motivate them to participate in research

For most focus groups, cash, digital payments or gift cards would be the most motivating incentive. In some cases for B2B studies, free trials of beta features or subscription discounts may be used in place of, or combined with, monetary compensation. 

Focus Group Limitations

At the start of this article, we mentioned the importance of having a variety of tools when conducting market research. While focus groups provide value, it’s important to be aware of their limitations. For example:

  • Focus groups are not usability studies: What people say they like or want is not the same as what they actually do or need. Usability studies evaluate behavior. Focus groups reflect what participants say they actually did, would do, emotions, opinions and desires.
  • Just because they say they would use it / buy it / download it doesn’t mean they will. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior so asking about past behavior while an indicator is not a guarantee.
  • Group dynamics can impact findings. If one or two people have strong personalities or are very persuasive, they might influence or mask the opinion of others.  Again, a skilled moderator will know how to shut down cross-participant influence while not shutting down responses from participants.

Focus Group Advantages

For both B2C and B2B market research, focus groups provide distinct advantages when used wisely. For example:

  • Focus groups can help teams clarify users’ thought processes and vocabulary during discovery phases. This is especially useful for pilot studies before moving forward with development. By understanding what users think and say, focus groups can also facilitate the development of future usability studies.
  • Focus groups save time since you can get feedback from multiple participants at once versus one-one-one interviews. While not perfect, this option might work best for companies on a tight schedule or smaller budget.
  • Questionnaires limit the level of detail covered. They can explore the “what” but not the “why”. Meanwhile, focus groups are much more dynamic. When your team is in early stages of product development, focus groups might unmask problems or opportunities that you never thought of. This may enable you to conduct more meaningful A/B testing through the discovery of new ideas.

Focus on Your Market Research

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all research tool. Whether you choose A/B testing, user testing, surveys or focus groups depends on your goals and product life cycle phase. Focus groups are more in-depth, emotional and dynamic. If populated with the right participants, a focus group can add important insight for any initiative.

 

META

Explore how to recruit participants for B2B and B2C focus groups including recruiting methods and options, incentives and the benefits and drawbacks of focus groups.

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