Whether you are developing a new creative campaign, evolving your brand identity, or gathering data on an existing campaign, creative focus groups are an essential way to find out how your customers are likely to respond to your messaging and materials. While less structured than quantitative research, focus groups are the best way to understand resonance, motivational power, and depth of feeling in response to creative concepts. This kind of knowledge is indispensable in shaping a successful campaign. The advantage is that testing provides these insights before you launch, and that makes all the difference in the world.
In most cases, three groups are needed for each major audience segment, with each group involving a different sub-segment: traditional age undergraduate prospects from three primary feeder areas, for example. With one or two groups, you may miss important perspectives, yet a fourth usually doesn’t give you new information, just more of the same. So three is our recommended number to have confidence in the breadth and validity of feedback obtained, and still be cost effective.
For student testing, each group should involve 8-12 participants. You’ll need to schedule and confirm (multiple times) 3-4 extras since no-shows are common, particularly among teenagers. It’s best to get help from admissions, which usually has relationships with high school counselors, to identity potential participants. We often ask counselors at feeder high schools to post sign-up sheets in libraries and hallways, offering cash incentives for participants.
On-site focus groups are, by far, the most reliable methodology, but they’re costly and difficult to arrange given our security-conscious society. When in-person groups are not feasible, online focus groups using WebEx or GoToMeeting type software make a good alternative. However, limit online groups to 8-10 participants to allow adequate input from each individual.
Regardless of format, you’ll need to pre-qualify participants based the audience profile you want to attract, which may or may not be the same as your current student mix. Careful pre-screening with phone interviews will determine the quality of data. Among high-school prospects, for example, there can be pronounced differences in the way urban students respond to creative stimuli versus rural students. The same is true for high-performing versus average students; large-school versus small-school students; and for students with high socio-economic status versus low. If you’re after high performers, don’t test average students.
In addition, if participants know what institution is sponsoring the research, responses are likely to be biased. For that reason, take every step necessary to ensure the groups are conducted blind, without participants knowing until afterward who is asking the questions.