Why Starting a Focus Group with an Intro Kills Time and the Vibe

I’m writing a little series of posts on Fridays that involve common consumer research errors, illusions, and falsehoods in a series of posts I’m calling, “Research Fallacy Fridays.” Because: alliteration. To get this series started, I want to begin with a really straightforward (and yet maddening) one: 

RESEARCH FALLACY 1: Starting a focus group with introductions creates rapport

You do NOT need to start a group with introductions. Some say introductions function to create rapport in a group of strangers— but have you ever created a bond with someone (solely) by stating facts about your lives? Rarely.

My frustration with typical introductions comes down to two main issues— 

  1. Standard introductions mean losing valuable time to re-treading ground rather than learning
  • Even at a clipped pace, introductions are a time-eater, taking up about 5-10 minutes, which may not seem like a lot of time— but in the context of a 60-minute group, it’s 1/6 of the time that we have to get learnings
  • Respondent profiles assembled by recruiters are thorough, so introductions mostly amount to taking up time restating what is already captured in the respondent grid
  1. Groups generally don’t create connections over introductions, as typical introductions set a cold— not warm— tone, sucking the energy out of the room
  • When people are asked to introduce themselves, they seem to go on auto-pilot, becoming vocal automatons as they bop through a list of facts about themselves in a neutral tone. “I’m Chris, and I’m __(age)__, and I work as a __(occupation)__ at __(company name)___ and I have __(number)__kids”
  • This flat, dispassionate affect can be a real depressant to the energy in the room; that kind of tone lacks any enthusiasm, and therefore does not create the positive momentum or interesting vibe needed for a fruitful discussion 

Oh, and the “remedy” of rushing introductions rarely works— when I’ve seen moderators try to rush people through intros, it sets an awkward tone as the moderator is forced to interrupt from the get-go, which disrupts people’s momentum and minimizes their desire to share.  

How SHOULD you start a focus group? I focus on what DOES create rapport between people: what will spark a positive charge in the room.

My general rule of thumb is to start a group with “first names and one thing”— have them say their first name for the group, then ask them to say one, on-topic thing only. What should that ‘one thing’ be? Well, it depends on the project and objective, but here’s a few tips for how to get your group to connect in a way that builds— not kills—the momentum.

  1. Ask about hobbies— asking people to share one thing they love to do in their free time is a surefire way to get wide smiles, create affinity from others in-group, and to feel good energy
  2. Reveal what they all have in common— typically, there’s a reason people were chosen to be in a group together, and sharing that uniting force can create simpatico: e.g. if they are all moms with kids under 5, or in the market for used cars, these little ties can bind
  3. Get contextual with it— although the rest of the group will almost always be more focused on a micro-topic, starting with a shared higher-level experience is a nice way to learn something about people, and create common ground with folks in-group: e.g., name one household item that you love the most for self-care, or talk about why you especially loved one show you streamed during the lockdown period

Hot tip— remember to make it clear with your language that you only want ONE thing— I put that in the text of the question and emphasize it vocally to tamp down people’s instinct to listicle or drone on, e.g. “What’s one thing that…” or “Name one thing that…”. This phrasing also gives you a straightforward reason as a moderator to politely clip someone who names multiple things, and begins to eat up time.  

I hope you find some value in this— it was the first in a series of fallacies I’ll write about— check back on Fridays if you’d like more.

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