Association Connect

Focus Groups Can Offer a Window Into Your Association’s Future

By Rachel Markey | October 27, 2020

One of the most useful tools for an association to determine how best to utilize resources, a focus group is a facilitated discussion among a select number of members or other key stakeholders on a specific topic. Compared to many other types of research, focus groups offer deep insights, enabling you to get to the how and why of questions. This planned discussion, when done right, results in honest feedback that helps shape and improve any number of efforts you are considering—and it might even uncover opportunities you have yet to consider.

Focus Groups Offer Qualitative Information

Including approximately six to 10 participants will keep things manageable and allow you to derive depth and detail not always afforded from quantitative research projects such as surveys. Qualitative information garnered from focus groups can also be used as a part of quantitative research by comparing focus group responses to responses from a larger survey conducted among a broader audience. Keep in mind, research needn’t be either-or; you will likely optimize insight into your members’ needs and interests through a mixed-methods approach combining both qualitative and quantitative data.

Focus Groups Uncover Information—and Communicate You Care

Focus groups can be a powerful means of communicating with key stakeholders to obtain topic ideas for publications and newsletters, hear key words and phrases used by members that you can use in your communications, share your association goals with influential members who are likely to share them with others, get buy-in on initiatives, and demonstrate to members that you truly care about their opinions.

When Is a Focus Group Beneficial?

Do you want to assess reactions to a proposed offering before investing the time and money? Would you benefit from gathering feedback on existing offerings to assess ROI? Do you need to address challenges, shortcomings, or discover blind spots in your association—and then offer direction for addressing these issues? These are just some of the reasons to consider a focus group.

Are There Any Downsides?

A single focus group can yield powerful data, but because it doesn’t reflect a large sample, it can potentially result in data that is misleading. Be mindful that a few strongly held opinions might not accurately reflect the opinions held by all of your members. To prevent the possibility of misrepresentation, consider conducting multiple focus groups among participants from different demographics. And consider combining focus groups with more quantitative methods to round out and verify responses. This will allow you to take the pulse of your membership.

Online vs. Face-to-Face

Right now, people understand the need for focus groups to be conducted online and are more comfortable with this format than ever before. Fortunately, virtual focus groups offer some advantages, and the few downsides can usually be compensated for.

Most of the preparation and actual facilitation of an online focus group is exactly the same as for one that’s face-to-face. But since you can’t offer refreshments or a break for informal sidebar chats during an online focus group, icebreakers are especially important—as is maintaining a conversational, open atmosphere. The challenge of striking a balance between keeping the conversation flowing and knowing when to get out of the way to allow the conversation to progress naturally falls to the moderator.

And although reading body language can be stymied when you’re not physically with the group, facial expressions can be closely observed to assess the level of engagement, to see if someone might have something to say, or to see if someone might be indicating disagreement.

Prepare Clear Objectives and Questions

It’s tempting to try to discuss everything you’ve been wondering about. Avoid this pitfall! If you talk about too many things, you’ll actually end up talking about very little. It’s far better to limit the conversation to a clear set of related objectives and uncover deep and insightful information pertaining to a defined desired outcome. If you need information about other subjects, schedule different focus groups—all with clear sets of objectives.

Ensure Everyone Gets a Chance to Express Themselves

There is always a risk that one or two participants will be most talkative and others might remain more passive. As mentioned above, watching for facial cues is important. Are others nodding in agreement? Are others showing signs of disagreement? Is anyone trying to speak but not being given a chance? Before moving from one discussion point to another, ensure that all participants have had a chance to speak their minds.

Go With the Flow (but Not Too Much)

Focus groups let you ask follow-up questions, which can take the conversation in a beneficial direction. The risk, however, of allowing the conversation to go too far astray is real. A skilled moderator (and possibly a co-moderator) should continually assess the conversation to assure it meaningfully evolves or returns to the main topic.

Record the Focus Group

All focus groups should be recorded—both audio and video—with all participants seen and heard. Online focus groups make this easy regardless of the platform you select, allowing you to review the recording after the focus group to look for cues you might have missed during the actual meeting.

Prepare a Findings Report

In the end, you’ll want to capture the key takeaways, including meaningful quotes, along with points of disagreement and consensus. You’ll also want to create a section that presents recommendations based on your findings and an action plan for what to do next to ensure a meaningful outcome for your focus group.

In addition to sharing this report with relevant stakeholders, you will likely benefit from sharing it, in whole or in part, with the focus group participants. They have given you their time, and this is your chance to give them something back and show you really listened and plan to use their feedback to shape future undertakings.


While focus groups can be time-consuming and require real attention to detail, they offer tremendous ROI by directing your efforts to deliver maximum results for your member offerings, marketing endeavors, communication efforts, and more.

Thinking of conducting a focus group? Please let us know if we can help. YGS has conducted many focus groups with associations and would welcome the chance to share our insights.

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