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Focus Groups Unlock Member Perceptions
By Christopher Bonner
ASAE Membership Developments from August 2000

Focus 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."

Focus 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.

Some 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.

Recently, 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 number.


Some 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.

Another 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.

The 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 extensive testing."

Distractions 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 spirited.

Association 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.

Critical 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.

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