The Art and Science of Focus Group Discussions

Dr. Louis Perron
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Last year alone, I have conducted more than 60 focus group discussions in Switzerland and various other countries as basis for political campaigns. It’s a very powerful and much-underestimated tool – not only for the private sector, but also for politics! Both in academia and in the real world, there is often a rather silly debate between believers of quantitative (surveys, polls) and qualitative (focus group discussions) public opinion research. In my experience, the two mutually complement each other. Simply put, the focus groups explain the “why” behind the numbers of a survey. A focus group usually consists of about eight respondents. They are not just a bunch of friends gathered together, but a carefully defined and recruited target group. While a very effective tool, a thousand details are involved in making sure that accurate data is obtained. Respondents chosen must feel comfortable enough to talk and must walk away from it without knowing for whom the discussion was for. Depending on the situation, you could choose to analyze undecided voters, voters who lean softly towards your candidate or any specific socio-economic group you are interested in. (I once had a client with a stunning 90% approval rating. Going for the gold, he wanted to do a focus group with respondents from the 10% who disapproved of his job. But that’s rather rare). During the actual discussion, the respondents sit together in a neutral room and are interviewed for about two hours. For this, we use a semi-structured discussion guide. Based on focus group data, I have told clients what projects to focus on and even how to name them, how to make up for mistakes during a situation of a crisis, and how to take advantage of the competition’s weaknesses. Focus groups have revealed what campaign tools to use, what ads to air and how to tweak them to make them more effective. I’ve even used it to explore how to change the physical appearance or behavior of the top candidate. And yes, there have been occasions during the past ten years that I have told clients, based on data, not to run (those who followed my advice were forever grateful).

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