Evidence-Based Innovation Blog

Business School Focus Groups: Learning from a Community of Stakeholders

Posted on Apr 26, 2012 8:15:00 AM

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To manage brands and tailor institutional offerings, business schools can capitalize on trends in how our target audience members express needs, thoughts, and feelings about our offerings.  To gain that insight, focus groups benefit from the effects of group dynamics, which stimulate thinking, ideas, conversations, and reactions to our products and brands.

Most focus groups may run from 60 to 90 minutes, and include 8 to 12 participants (groups of different sizes may be considered depending on our objectives).  By encouraging conversation among participants, we learn about:

  • Language that our stakeholdrs use when evaluating brands, products, or services;
  • Roles people play in a community of product users (e.g., early adopter, supporter, skeptic, etc.);
  • Behavioral or attitudinal norms within a community of stakeholders;
  • Consensus or disagreement among stakeholders in how they think or feel, and why people might think or feel differently; and
  • Ways people use our products or adopt brands as part of their daily lives.

Consciously or not, people often incorporate particular brands or products into the fabric of their daily lives.  Bringing people together in discussion can help fill in memory or knowledge gaps as group participants inspire each other’s conversation.  That way we develop clearer insight on our stakeholders’ needs, how they relate to brands and products, and how they connect with other people in the context of our brands and products.

Collecting actionable information from focus groups can elicit certain challenges, however. Strong personalities can dominate conversations so that insights from introverted or reserved participants are overlooked.  Conversation tangents can distract from the research focus.  A highly skilled moderator works to ensure that all participants are heard and critical questions are addressed throughout the group meeting.

What is a focus group?    

A focus group engages 8 to 12 select participants in a moderated discussion.  Though the group meeting is ideally a relaxed, organic discussion, pre-determined questions and a well-thought discussion guide help the moderator address critical questions and keep group conversation focused.

When do we use focus groups?       

Whenever we need to learn how groups of people think or feel about our brands and products; to understand how groups of people relate to brands or to other people through brands; to drill down on student satisfaction issues; and to learn of behavioral or attitudinal similarities and differences within a specific population.  For example, business schools can use focus groups to:

  • Gather alumni or student feedback on pending curriculum changes;
  • Probe for details to understand low student satisfaction metrics; or
  • Pre-test new programs or marketing messages to current stakeholders or a new demographic.

Why do we use focus groups?

Having learned about the feelings, beliefs, and dynamics of a community of users, we can design products or messaging that resonate with community norms, and more closely align with the needs of our target audience members.


Dr. Joyce Kurpiers, is a perceptive ethnographer, group moderator and interviewer.  She serves as qualitative research consultant to Percept Research clients.  Joyce welcomes your questions and comments.

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Topics: Qualitative Research, Joyce Kurpiers, Focus Groups