Several recent conversations with credit union clients have centered on the topic of focus groups. Some of our clients are exploring the idea of using focus groups as part of an internal cultural assessment, while others are looking to focus groups to help them better understand their members. Regardless of the purpose, if you are planning to conduct focus groups, here are five important guidelines to keep in mind:

1. The Mix of the Group Matters More than You Think–Focus groups are intended to provide a forum for probing specific topics, but often you are seeking insight from a diverse group of people. That’s why it is important to do some thinking beforehand about the mix of people you invite to participate. Your goal should be to create groups that have something in common, such as living in the same area, coming from the same generation, holding similar job titles, or using similar products and services. Always try to avoid having those to whom people report on a day-to-day basis in the same groups–it stifles the conversation and limits the value of what you learn.

2. Multiple Groups Yield Better Insights–Pursuing cost effectiveness often drives credit union leaders to seek to minimize the number of focus groups they conduct or to believe that one group is all that you need. The reality is that any group can be led in a general direction based on things that are beyond the control of the facilitator, just as a casual mealtime conversation sometimes takes on a life of its own despite attempts to steer it in a different direction. Having multiple groups address the same issue yield better insights in the long term because it avoids this problem. More important multiple groups allow the facilitator to probe deeper on issues that have come up in earlier groups–providing you with insights that are not accessible in a single group.

3. Incentives and Rewards Drive Participation–Like it or not, people are not going to give up their time to participate in your focus groups unless there is some payoff for them. Offering some sort of specific incentive or reward that is publicized with the invitation to participate is the key to getting people to participate. Don’t fret over whether some will show up just because they want the incentive. The role of the facilitator is to draw them into the conversation and get them to share their insights. Letting the people who consider signing up know that you value their time and are willing to provide them with compensation will get you the audience you need to learn what you want to know.

4. An Outside Facilitator Will Learn More than You Can–People who have never facilitated conversations between strangers often underestimate how hard it is to get people to share their thoughts in an open forum. That is one key reason why you should hire an outside facilitator for your focus group process. But there is another, perhaps even more, important reason–people tend to hold back when they are speaking to someone who works in the organization being discussed. They don’t want their comments to feel too personal and they worry that the internal person will have a different perspective or try to explain their concern away. An outside facilitator is independent in the eyes of the participants and it is easier for people to open up to them and share their candid thoughts, insights, and beliefs.

5. The Value of the Insights Derives from the Clarity of Your Purpose–Many approaches can be used to learn what people think about any issue, including polls, online or telephone surveys, one-on-one interviews, and so forth. The focus group is intended to be more directed than these approaches and therefore has the potential to reveal deeper insight. By bringing a group of people together to discuss a specific topic and allowing the discussion to evolve based on the individual and collective responses of the group breakthrough insights can be revealed. But the key to making this happen is having a clear and specific purpose for the discussion and keeping the conversation focused on that topic even as other issues surface.

The bottom line is that the focus group can be a powerful tool for learning more from your members and your employees if it is done correctly. The guidelines shared here are intended to help you manage your efforts more effectively to yield results that you can use to grow your credit union.

ACTION ADVICE: Consider how you might use focus groups to explore and learn more about critical issues facing your credit union both from the member and employee perspectives. Learning what your employees think has great value in defining, building, and sustaining your culture. Learning what you members think can help you improve both efficiency and effectiveness in delivering products and services that fulfill your brand promise. How might you use the focus group approach to create more success for your credit union in the months ahead?