Focus Groups Unlock Member Perceptions
By Christopher Bonner
ASAE Membership Developments from August 2000
groups are a valuable tool for association leaders because they are
rich in nuance and vividly frame how members and other audiences see
the world. They yield priceless information and often exceed the
horizon of survey data. As a bonus, focus groups send a message that
members like to hear: "We're listening. Your opinion counts."
groups are not difficult to do--a room is all you need--but they are
difficult to do well. They take time and professional coordination to
be effective. There are two reasons for this:
1. Members are more likely to open up to outsiders.
2. Professional facilitators know how to encourage members to open up.
associations, especially those with training and education programs,
may have individuals capable of facilitating a focus group. However,
this does not work well in practice because the presence of staff
almost always has a chilling effect on the discussion.
an association client insisted on having an "observer" in the room
during a member focus group. Upon answering questions about the
organization's performance, several of the members turned in their
chairs and nodded at the staff member, as if seeking approval. The
results were interesting, but not a true picture.
When it is important to observe a focus group session, specially designed
facilities are available with one-way mirrors and cameras that capture
everything on videotape. More commonly, focus groups are guided
dialogues between 9-15 members picked at random, but each member
represents a slice of the membership.
Drawing volunteers together in the same city at the same time for a focus group
is problematic. It is much more convenient for member focus groups to
be part of a scheduled association meeting. For a focus group of 10-12
members, invite 15. Even if all of them show up, 15 is a manageable
organizations offer incentives of $50-$100 per person to assure focus
group attendance. This may not be necessary if the association has the
patience to call the membership to identify those willing to donate
their time for the good of the organization.
proven focus group incentive is a cash drawing, from $100 to $500 per
group. Ask the focus group members to place their business cards in a
box and draw one winner at the end of the session. Also provide a meal
with the focus group and allow members a choice as to the time of day
the group meets.
fact is, focus groups ask a lot of members--their time. With a meal, a
session easily lasts 90 minutes to two hours, and requires participants
to be fully engaged. Engagement is a result of the quality of the
dialogue and the conditions for the discussion.
For example, it found that the word council indicated a group of people working together to solve a problem. Other words, such as association, alliance, and institute were not as favorable as council. The word association was thought to be used too extensively, the word alliance reflected a more temporary arrangement (much like a military alliance), and institute
made them think of a more academically oriented organization. Terry
Yosie, vice president for strategic communication, explains, "Our
industry is very analytical, so we approached our name change with
kill spontaneity. The room must be quiet. The doors must stay closed.
Loud music outside, chairs and dishes being stacked, or hedges being
trimmed must be anticipated and avoided. If the thread of discussion is
snapped, it is difficult to recapture, especially if the discussion is
conferences are famous for members wandering the halls, looking for
their meetings and instead stumbling into a confidential focus group in
progress. Some strangers may come in and sit down at the table,
provoking an awkward moment and spoiling the focus group's continuity.
Position someone outside the door to protect the group's privacy. Do
not rely on signs alone.
to success is the establishment of a safe environment for focus group
participants. Confidentiality must be assured. No one should feel
defensive, because there are no right or wrong answers. Allow members
to be heard but not dominate the stage. Avoid confrontations but
encourage dialogue. Allow the discussion to go where the members take
it because what's important is what's important to them.
Christopher Bonner president of Bonner Consultants, Inc., McLean, Virginia, is a member of the Membership Section.