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20 things that can go wrong with your community meetings and focus groups (19 Jun 19)

What to do when things donít work out quite the way you expected

Focus groups are one of the most powerful tools available to you. They are perfect for uncovering what people think.

They are quite tricky things to run, though. You must make sure the group sticks to the agenda, that you get everyone to contribute and that no one dominates the group.

Here are twenty problems or things that can go wrong with suggestions on what to do.

If you are worried about what to do in certain situations that are not listed here please let me know. If itís a problem for you, itís bound to be a problem for someone else.  

Nobody shows up at all
Check that you have got the right day and time and you are at the right venue.
The fault might be with you, rather than no one turning up.

If you have all the details right and no one has turned up you could have avoided this by confirming attendance with phone calls the day before. Thatís why many dentists phone up to remind you of your appointment. .

Only a few people turn up
Itís not necessarily the end of the world. You can often learn more from groups with small numbers because they make for more interaction.

You could always ask respondents if they have friends who are similar to them who they can put you in touch with. This is only suitable though with certain audiences - such as tenants, teenagers and ethnic minority groups. Be careful though that you donít overstate the results.

The venue isnít what you expected
Donít over-react. Acknowledge any problems with the participants and encourage them to accept the situation.

People want their incentives before the group starts
Be clear about how incentives will be handled when you invite people and confirm that they are coming. Often it is appropriate to give the incentives at the start to show good faith.

A respondent wants to flirt with you 
Be prepared to respond completely professionally and ignore this. Stay calm and focused on what you have to do.

The tape recorder doesnít work 
First of all always bring a back-up.

But if you only have one, stay calm and donít fiddle with it. Take extra careful notes.

People bring their children
If the children are unruly or need attention, one of the moderators will have to take care of them. If there is only one moderator and the children canít be cared for, you will have to ask the person to leave.

People bring their friends
Let them listen but not participate.

People who you arenít expecting turn up
If they are the kind of the people you want to involve, let them participate. Focus groups are not statistical samples, so extra people are not a problem.

If they are not the kind of people you want, apologize and ask them to leave. Explain that you can only accept those people who are on your list because youíre getting a proper cross section of people. If they are determined to stay, let them listen but not participate.

A non English speaker turns up
Make an appointment to interview them separately with an interpreter.

Someone is drunk or under the influence of drugs
Stop the group and ask them to leave. They simply must be removed Ė diplomatically but firmly explaining that they cannot take part in this condition. Part of the advantage of having two moderators is that one can deal with such unruly people while the other gets on with the focus group.

Someone wants to discuss something different
Tell them that you have a lot to get through and you need to keep the discussion on track, but theyíre welcome to tell you about it afterwards. Strong moderation and facilitation is required. A focus group is, by definition, focused. So make sure it stays that way.

Someone wants to discuss their own problem
Explain that you canít deal with individual problems, but if they give you a brief account at the end of the group, youíll try to put them in touch with someone who can help.

It could be useful if you have other staff on hand to answer questions at the end of the group. For example, you could have a maintenance officer available at the end of a focus group of tenants so they can tell them about needed repairs.

You run out of time and realise that you havenít covered the main questions
Thereís really no excuse for this. It represents poor facilitation. You wonít be able to count the group in the findings.

The types of people who turn up differ so much and have so little in common that itís hard to get a group feeling going
Get them to break into mini-groups which are more similar, or put them in pairs to do exercises. Conduct a group interview but not a focus group interview. Turn the weakness into strength by capturing diverse perspectives.

You canít get people to leave
Depending on the facility, go ahead and leave - let them stay on talking. Otherwise, insist that the availability of the facility is ended.

One person objects to the group being tape recorded 
They should always be told when recruited that the group will be recorded, so this shouldnít arise.

But if it does, see if you can make a separate appointment to speak to that person, possibly by phone, and explain that you need to record the session to have an accurate record.

If they object when the group takes place explain that you canít do justice to their views if you have to moderate the group and take notes at the same time.

If need be tell them they are free to leave, with regrets.

An argument breaks out between the groupís members
Tell everyone that itís ok to disagree but that itís not a matter of who is right or wrong, but what can be learnt from the different views. If you have to ask someone to leave try to do this in the group - by inviting the main aggressor to leave if the position canít be resolved. Others in the group are then likely to support you. 

Strong moderation and facilitation is required.

A fight breaks out between two respondents
Take a break, a ďtime-out.ĒPart of the advantage of having two moderators is that one can deal with such protagonists while the other can get on with the focus group.

If need be call the police!

You get to the end and realise that your tape recorder wasnít turned on
Stay calm. When you get home or back to the office write down as much as you can remember as quickly as you can.

If this topic interests you why not run a course in house? The price is fixed no matter how many people attend. Contact Karen at karen@rodlaird.co.uk 

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