Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 2000 Current Issue
June 2000 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics

By Martha Jo Dendinger, CMP


The whys and wherefores of these research panels

Most planners produce events to impart information. One meeting, however, is designed to do the opposite: gather information. Focus groups have become popular to help sponsors understand the nuances of everything from campaign messages to to product development.

A focus group is a research technique for gathering qualitative data. Surveys, questionnaires and interviews are quantitative methods. For example, a post-meeting questionnaire gathers such information as demographics and the number of people who found the event helpful. A focus group enhances the data, showing what made the meeting successful and how next year’s can be improved.

Focus groups have four basic elements:

  • Their purpose is research.
  • They are focused on one subject.
  • The format is group discussion.
  • They are small. Typically, researchers use six to 10 people and one facilitator per group.
    Some special challenges can make or break a focus group.

     Question development. This is the most critical step. The questions will determine the information you gain. Tip: Devote as many resources (time, talent and money) to question development as you would for a keynote speaker; both are the guts of the meeting. Great questions make the final stage analysis and reporting much easier.

     Participant recruitment. The challenge here is two-fold: Find the right participants and ensure they attend. Pick people who represent as many subgroups of your target audience as possible to provide a cross-section of opinions.

    Cash or some sort of recognition encourages attendance. The honorarium varies with the topic and the group. Those giving opinions on a community improvement project might need only a plate of cookies. Physicians discussing a new drug might require full reimbursement of their expenses and a four-figure fee.

     Moderation. The session should be structured to provide group dynamics that match its purpose. Accomplish this with different leadership styles and question types. Groups can be unstructured, carrying on an open-ended dialogue, or the moderator can lead a focused discussion, never straying from the script. One approach sets a brainstorming atmosphere; the other provides depth and detail. A quality moderator is an essential ingredient.

     Analysis and reporting. The group will produce piles of data. Determine if the analysis will be based on transcripts, tapes, notes or memory. Flip charts and note cards also can be used to supplement the data collection.

    Analysis based on transcripts is the most reliable, but requires more time. Question-by-question analysis is the most popular. Participants also can be asked for reactions to previous focus group results, requiring another round of study. The detail the organization wants will determine the time and money required for this final task.

    A focus group can be held anywhere the participants will feel comfortable talking about the topic. If the discussion is to be recorded, the facility should be wired for this.

    When hidden researchers need to observe the participants, book a room with a one-way mirror. If the topic is sensitive and privacy is paramount, restrict access to tapes and transcripts and remove identifying information; when all is said and done, you might need to destroy the records.

    Market research firms can help with all of the above. To cut costs, planners can use membership lists or customer databases to recruit people, combine focus groups with other events and train staff members to be moderators.

    Martha Jo Dendinger, CMP, is an independent meeting planner based in Atlanta.

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