Here's How We Get into Our Customer's Heads (in 8 Simple Steps!)

How well do you know your customers? In 2018, we decided to get to know them on a more personal level, so we hosted four focus groups at a variety of events to get to know them better. Here's how we did it, and what we learned:

Why hold focus groups?

Market research spans a range from very impersonal and demographically targeted research to very individual, in-depth conversations. Initially, we researched existing, third-party data on FEE's target demographic: high school and college students. (Here is a summary of our research survey on influencing millennials.) Then, we conducted website surveys of our web visitors and exit surveys of our seminar participants. Next, we conducted the four focus groups described below. Finally, our marketing team had an in-depth one on one interviews with our customers. 

We decided to host focus groups to get an understanding of our customers that is more personal, intuitive and forthcoming than surveys, yet more rigorous and comprehensive than one-on-one in-depth interviews.

What kind of questions should you ask?

It is essential to come to a focus group with the right questions to get useful results. I started with the questions we had about making our messaging more effective:

  • How do our customers form opinions?
  • What news sources do they trust?
  • What are their hopes and fears for themselves, and the world?

From this, I derived 10 questions to ask each group:

  1. What are your favorite social media pages and why?
  2. Let’s say you hear something new about a topic that’s important to you, but you’re not really sure if it’s true. What do you do next?
  3. What is something you changed your mind about within the last couple years, and what made you change your mind about it?
  4. What do you think is the biggest problem facing this country or the world?
  5. What do you think is the most exciting change or trend that will make the world better?
  6. What impact do you want to have on your city, country, or world?
  7. What have been some significant obstacles you’ve faced over the last few years?
  8. What are some significant obstacles you think you might face in the next few years?
  9. Think about a problem you recently dealt with. How do you go about solving it?
  10. What are some sources you used to trust but don’t anymore, and why did you lose trust in them?

With a target size of 5-8 people per group, these questions filled up the 45 minutes session.

How to organize a focus group

To host a focus group, the following ingredients are required:

  • The participants: we incentivized participants with $10 Amazon gift cards ($10 in Bitcoin for the first session, which was at a Bitcoin event.) This is plenty for college students.
  • Consent forms: I wrote a consent form which states the purpose of the session, the procedure, the confidential nature of individual responses, and asks basic demographic questions. The consent forms were also useful to document the results of the sessions.
  • The questions to ask - see above. Questions are open-ended, so that more than a yes/no answer is needed, but not so vague or broad that the discussion get side tracked on individual questions.
  • Audiovisual recording equipment: we recorded each session so that we would not need to take notes during the event. We used a Zoom Q2n video recorder, which is primarily designed for high-quality audio recording with accompanying video.
  • A quiet space: it is difficult to get legible audio of a group discussion if there is anything else happening in the background.

How to conduct focus groups

  1. Gather your participants, have them sign concept forms, then invite them to sit in a semi-circle around you.
  2. Introduce the purpose of the session and stress that all answers will be anonymous.
  3. Ask for everyone's names. Write them down in the order that participants are seated.  Having the names on paper will make it easy for you to call on specific people.
  4. I asked basic demographic questions to get a feel for the participants and make them comfortable. "Are you a college or high school students? Have you heard about FEE before?"
  5. Go down the questions on the list. If you are recording, you don't need to write down the answers. If not, I strongly recommend an assistant to take notes for you.
  6. Halfway through the session, I revert the order in which I call on people, to minimize the risk of the same participants leading the answers.
  7. When finished, if I still had time, I ask additional questions to expand on interesting answers from the focus group.
  8. Thank the participants for coming and arrange payment.

What we learned from high school and college students in 2018

Here are selected insights from the focus groups we conducted in 2018:
  • There is deep concern about political divisiveness and closemindeness in the United States. Young people see it as the main problem facing the world today.
  • There is hope that the Internet will lower barriers to information and build global understanding. Participants are generally optimistic about technology.
  • Among reasons for optimism, no one noted positive material conditions in the world. Overpopulation is still seen as a basic cause of the world’s problems.
  • Many (most?) young people are for both “socialism” and “capitalism.” They do not see this as a contradiction. Socialism/capitalism is seen as the forces of cooperation/competition rather than incompatible economic/political systems.
  • Participants are primarily concerned with their personal lives, specifically their education, finance (ability to pay for education and lifestyle), and health.
  • While “new media” such as Google, Wikipedia, Facebook are important for forming opinions, old media still plays an important role in how young people check facts and form opinions.
  • Few participants have complete trust in any one news source, with strong distrust in the honesty of major news networks.
  • High school students generally lack strong political affiliations. 


Did this post help you run our own focus group?  Let us know!