How to Screen Participants for Your Online Focus Group

  • Darshan Mehta
  • November 9, 2017

True political debate has become an endangered species — in the U.S., anyway. Instead of cordial discussions, the left and the right seem to communicate only with fumes, takedowns, or stone-cold silence.

That’s bad news for focus groups, in which open communication is the goal. So when we conducted political focus groups prior to the 2016 presidential election, we screened our participants’ political beliefs. We then put Democrats, Republicans, and Independents into separate groups. Maybe we’d have generated some creative insults or witty comebacks if the groups were mixed, but that’s not what we were after. We wanted a deeper understanding of what each group thought.

To be clear, focus groups should be diverse, but they should be composed of a diversity that leads to creative — rather than destructive — conflict. Our political groups provided us with rich responses that we wouldn’t have received had we been less careful with our screening.

Getting Started

An effective screener should weed out the candidates who won’t contribute constructively to the group’s discussion.

Screeners can filter participants by demographic criteria, psychographic criteria, or both. For example, a focus group on yacht preferences shouldn’t be filled with people from the lowest tax bracket, just like our political focus group would have gone nowhere with a polarized selection of participants.

The following six steps will take you through the process of screening focus group participants, from finding your audience to contacting selected participants:

1. Find the audience. The recruiting process for focus groups is like a funnel, and it’s biggest at this first step. Begin with a list of potential focus group members who have some connection to the topic. Your company might already have a list of customers. Alternatively, you could purchase a list of people fitting certain demographic or psychographic criteria.

2. Eliminate early. Before invitations to the screening survey even go out, filter based on key demographics. If you’re only looking for women, filter out all the men before they take the survey or early on in the screening questionsNo one likes to find out he’s the wrong gender on the last question of a survey.

That said, try not to tip your hand on your screening criteria. Craft questions and answer choices so it’s difficult for respondents to guess the screening criteria. You want honest answers, not the answers they think you want to hear.

3. Choose your medium. The screening survey can be done over the phone, online, or via snail mail. Your demographic will determine the type of medium you choose. Of course, your time and budget will also factor in.

In general, online recruiting tends to be faster and more affordable. Respondents prefer the ease and convenience — no stamps or talking to strangers. Email invitations, links to social media, and market research online communities (MROCs) are all ways to drive traffic to an online screening survey.

4. Select for constructive conversation. You want a diverse group of participants who are willing to debate. This doesn’t happen when people aren’t engaged in the topic. To eliminate apathetic participants, look at question response times on your online screener. Don’t pick participants who answer too quickly (and thoughtlessly).

In our political groups, we divided Republicans and Democrats, but within those sections, we selected a diverse group of participants. That diversity of opinion — without antagonism — fostered constructive conflicts that led to great conversation.

5. Compensate survey respondents. Time is money. Screener participants provide their time and input, so reward them for it. Per survey, $1 to $5 is standard for most screeners. Compensation for focus group participants can vary depending on the audience and the length of participation. Our political group participants received $75 for two hours of their time.

When participants are treated fairly and are satisfied with the process, they encourage others to participate. Uncompensated participants don’t feel valued, which could render them unwilling to participate in the future.

6. Provide information to selected respondents. After the screening process, contact those who have been selected. Focus group participants can be flighty, so it’s important to make communication clear. Send your selected respondents the time and date of the group, incentive information, and personal reminders. For online focus groups, send login information. For in-person groups, provide the address, directions, and parking/public transportation information.

The right kind of conflict is essential for great responses within a focus group. But positive conflict doesn’t appear out of thin air. It happens when the right group of people is engaged in a thought-provoking conversation. The right kind of screening will spark constructive conflict and valuable insights.

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