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Applying qualitative research for marketing effectiveness, part 2

Photo by Raquel Martínez on Unsplash
Photo by Raquel Martínez on Unsplash

It’s easy for today’s researcher sometimes to forget the value of human connection. 

Given user-friendly web and social media tools, researchers (and the businesses that hire them) may think digital engagement is a sufficient substitute for personal interaction. Quality research, however, focuses on data from multiple sources. 


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In this article, we’ll elaborate on the 10 elements of a research project outlined earlier, using a focus group project as an example.

Remember that a focus group is an interview of representatives of a specific audience from your church, i.e. singles. The interview is guided by a moderator who uses prepared questions about a limited topic. Responses are verbal, open-ended, broad and qualitative.

There are many reasons for organizations like churches to use focus groups. Most importantly, the “voice-of-the-member” perspective is helpful to guide strategic planning or decisions. Plan to use focus groups to…

  • Test a new ministry idea
  • Delve into complex behavior, such as why people come to your church
  • Better understand opinions, beliefs and attitudes
  • Build rapport with members and your community
  • Suggest solutions to identified problems

A well-planned focus group with clear objectives probes deeply into a subject, providing clearer answers.

Let’s dig into 10 tasks to help you plan for a successful focus group research study. 

Create a project team

Your project team consists of the stakeholders who will use the findings of your work. Including them from the beginning increases the likelihood that the project will be successful. This team may include the pastor, staff members and lay leaders. They will be asked to define the objective of the research and may be asked to gather data, attend meetings, distribute surveys and coordinate communication.

Create a budget

The great news is that research can be completed on a shoestring budget. Time is the primary resource. Depending on the scope of your project, costs may include incentives (honorarium) for participants, facility rental/use fees, travel, recruiting, consultation, food and supplies.

Define the research objective(s)

It’s critical to develop a clear set of objectives so that you can ask the right questions. This will also help you select the most appropriate people for the focus group. To define your objectives, answer the following questions: What does your project team want to know? What are their goals? What will they do with this research? What background information should you include? What do you already know about the topic? What research has already been completed?

Establish a timeline

Planning should be done well in advance. Develop a proposed timeline including tasks, dates and responsible parties. A typical timeline includes:

  • Project kick off
  • Research proposal
  • Sample
  • Facility
  • Moderator
  • Discussion guide
  • Participant recruitment with invitations, confirmations, reminders
  • Travel
  • Focus group meetings
  • Evaluation/summary of findings
  • Presentation of results


Identify the sample

Your sample is the group of people selected to participate in the research. Their selection can be based on their familiarity with a resource, service or behavior. They are often people in the group you’re trying to influence.

Consider including current church members, new members, Bible study participants and/or others of the community in your sample group. Be certain to allow for diversity as it creates a fuller discussion. The participants should not know one another. This may present a challenge in a church. At minimum, keep spouses separate as well as parents and children.

How many participants are needed? Too many opinions confuse the issue while too few offer limited scope. Best practice suggests 8 to 10 people are ideal for a focus group. If you can accommodate it, hosting more than one focus group study using different people ensures a good mix of perspectives and ideas.

Develop a survey questionnaire or discussion guide

When developing the questions for your session, select four to five that best relate to your objective. In researcher terminology this is known as the discussion guide.

Your questions should be open-ended and flow from general to specific. For example, in a church satisfaction study, you might ask participants about the frequency of attending worship and small groups before asking for an overall evaluation and their experiences in worship, small groups, fellowship, youth/children ministries, etc.  

Remember, the goal is group interaction. You may want to test your questions before using them with the focus group to ensure engagement.

Make sure the questions can be discussed in the allotted time — ideally, one to two hours. Include time for...

  • Welcome
  • Ground rules (cell phones off, take turns speaking, no wrong answers)
  • Confidentiality statement
  • Study objectives
  • Introductions
  • Ice breakers (question relates to the topic)
  • Main questions
  • Closing with thanks

Who leads the discussion? 

Focus groups are unique since a moderator is present. This is a vital role because these leaders direct the discussion and (typically) write the report. A good moderator will keep the group on track, assure all participants are heard and deal with outspoken members. If the budget allows, consider using a professional or outside consultant as these bring objectivity and expertise to the sessions.

If this responsibility falls on someone on the project team, here are tips to overcome common focus group obstacles:

Have a participant with a dominant personality? There’s typically one person who tries to dominate the discussion. Shift attention by calling on others by name. Decrease eye contact with the one dominating the conversation.

Is someone being especially quiet or shy? Some people are uncomfortable opening up in a group. Explicitly invite this person to answer, encouraging them with smiles and nods.

Don’t let a rambler derail discussion. Wait for them to take a breath, and then quickly interrupt to call on another participant. Repeat the question, and call on someone by name.

Groupthink is a real thing. It’s easy for one person to sway others to their opinion. Instruct participants that sharing their individual thoughts is essential to the success of the focus group. Call on individuals instead of waiting for someone to speak, for example, “Dan, can you tell us about your last conference experience?”

Recruit participants

Choosing the right respondents over the right number should be your goal. Develop qualifying questions to help screen potential participants based on topical knowledge, past focus group experience or specific demographics. Ways to recruit participants include email, posters and flyers. Get creative. Invitations should describe:

  • The purpose of the focus groups
  • The participants' role and what’s expected
  • How long the focus groups will last
  • Rewards or inducements provided for participation

Launch the project

The launch date is the official start of collecting data for your project. In preparation:

  • Identify special needs of participants
  • Print and place directional signs guiding participants to parking and meeting rooms
  • Order and have supplies in-hand: recording device (with back-up batteries), pens, paper, clock, name tags, refreshments
  • Select comfortable seats and arrange them to encourage discussion
  • Adhere to the discussion guide and schedule
  • Have thank you notes available to mail to group members

Write the report

Quick delivery of the report and diligent follow-up are key. Review your notes and recording. Document the key findings from the sessions. Craft a formal report including background, purpose, session details, results and recommendations. Present the report to your project team.

Act on the data and measure success

It’s vital that your project team uses the data you’ve collected to plan specific actions. Your success derives from next steps.

Meet with the project team members to share the data collected and brainstorm ideas. Focus group data may lead to: 

  • Creating a Facebook Group for a project
  • Writing a press release and/or new content for your website, newsletter or bulletin
  • Developing a new logo or property signage
  • Planning a workshop or training event

Always follow up with the project team to answer questions and gauge use of data. That way everyone can make the most of this valuable information.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and your church leadership through research. It’s important to keep asking what your church can do to better understand your members and community. If it feels a bit awkward, you’re probably doing it right.



Teresa Faust

Teresa Faust is the Senior Manager of Research and Metrics at United Methodist Communications. She spent most of her career in advertising research, predominantly working with consumer packaged goods companies at a large market research vendor. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, when she joined UMCom in 2014. She has two adult sons and enjoys reading and walking. Contact her »