The Truth About Focus Groups in Higher Education

Focus groups have been a long-standing favorite in higher ed marketing as a means of acquiring valuable qualitative data that may help solve a marketing challenge. So it’s no surprise that, early on in our history as higher ed marketers, RHB employed focus groups as a go-to means of collecting in-depth marketing data about significant audience segments. In a perfect world, this methodology provided opportunity to hear directly from our clients’ current and desired audiences (students and/or prospects mostly, but also families, donors, community members, counselors and myriad others), and the discoveries of these conversations informed our approach to solving the challenges our clients were facing, particularly in terms of their communication strategies.

So we did focus groups. Literally thousands of them. The problem? They weren’t always telling us what we needed to know, and they weren’t always productive. After a few hundred, we almost felt we could conduct them blindfolded, and certainly we could predict the answers to our questions. Different clients, different problems; but yet similar approach, similar results. The results garnered from these groups always seemed to provide the same kind of data. The information we received wasn’t distinctive enough, and the conversations weren’t revealing anything we didn’t already know (i.e., “everyone on campus is really friendly” is a distinction that belongs to the many, not the few). Even when we crafted specific questions and altered language, the responses seemed to coagulate on the same old ideas. Something had to change.

In one of our creative meetings prior to a new client engagement, we asked ourselves: “Do we have to conduct regular focus groups on campus? Or might there be a better way?” And if we weren’t going to conduct focus groups as we had been, what would we do to garner the authentic information we needed? As creatives are prone to do, we decided to break every rule of a focus group.

Thus, Circles of Influence, one of RHB’s signature offerings, was born.

Why traditional focus groups were failing.

It is hard to unearth anything of substance and distinction in a traditional focus group for higher ed. Not impossible, just hard. Part of the problem is that, generally, the interviewer is relegated to asking questions that are, in spite of their best intentions or the research they have to go on, uninformed. Or, if they don’t know which questions to ask, they might have to start with a broad line of inquiry in order to hopefully end up with some more specific conversations at the end of the interview. This doesn’t always provide meaningful results, and often these questions end up becoming repetitive.

Focus groups tend to come from a place where you’re hypothesizing about the solution. The problem may be prescribed by the client ahead of time, so the interviewer may go into a focus group with a dozen questions in mind that are destined to help fix the problem. But that “problem” may not, in fact, be the true problem at all. A hypothesis is determined ahead of time, but it is often a misinformed hypothesis. If it happens that your hypothesis is correct, focus groups can be revelatory in clarifying problems, needs and potential solutions. But it’s dangerous if your hypothesis is wrong; you’ve missed out on discovering a major piece of insight that reveals the real problem.

One of the aims of focus groups is to focus on a specific market segment. Homogeneity among participants is critical to garner a reading of the perspectives of certain types of audiences. That model tends to equate to similar responses from all the participants and creates the need for many groups to represent the whole of an institution’s market—assuming it is qualitative data you are after.

An additional failure of focus groups comes in the form of defensive clients. We’ve learned from experience, when clients sit in on focus groups being conducted, they feel inclined to jump in to the conversation to defend anything being criticized or scrutinized by the group. These interruptions impede the conversational flow, and in many cases might invalidate any of the research used to inform the discussions in the first place. The knee-jerk reaction to justify anything heard in the focus group is counterproductive, hence the need for privacy mirrors in rooms designed specifically for focus groups.

How Circles of Influence are different.

When we decided to change our approach to focus groups, we knew that simply avoiding the pitfalls wasn’t enough. We had to approach these conversations in a completely new and different way. We determined that crafting the exact opposite would be a good place to start.

For example, in focus groups, the goal is to curate homogeneity in your set of participants. In Circles of Influence, we don’t seek out a prescribed demographic. Instead, participants are recruited by a “pivotal” student who selects other students, faculty or staff that they have a meaningful relationship with (perhaps a roommate from Freshman year, an influential professor, their favorite dining hall staff member, a mentor, coach or friend) to serve as members of their Circle. We ask the pivotals to think of the people on campus who have been most influential in their experience to date. As a result, participants in Circles of Influence don’t have shared demographics; they have shared experiences.

In focus groups, the interviewer controls the conversation. In Circles of Influence, the participants control the conversation. By allowing the participants to dictate where the discussions go, and loosening the structure enough to allow for tangents and hard turns, we learn about perspectives and experiences that we wouldn’t have even known to ask about. While part of our role is to get the conversation started, or at least nudge it slightly down promising paths by asking the right questions as needed, our primary role in any Circle is to listen and learn.

Focus groups require prescribed questions. Circles of Influence allow questions to be generated organically and asked instinctively. This frees us to engage in what feels more like an equal-footed conversation with all participants, instead of having to rigidly lead participants through a series of rote or pedantic questions. Set structure and deliberate lines of questioning can reduce the likelihood of forthrightness in participants—students in particular—as it smacks too much of grammar school indoctrination where students are entrained to answer questions in an appeasing fashion, or succumb to groupthink, meaning: if one person answers in a certain way, the rest follow. With Circles, we get to more truths and more inspired responses.

Focus groups begin with a hypothesis and a clear agenda; the Circles of Influence method is more of a blank page. When we start a conversation with one of our Circles, we have no expectation, and certainly no assumptions about how the conversation will unfold. This allows us to investigate multiple threads of thought within a conversation, without worrying if we are moving too far “off-topic.” This may lead to a new hypothesis, one that is likely more indicative of our client’s true problems.

Following our Circles discussion, we deliver a summary report to the client to encapsulate and summarize not only the overarching throughlines among multiple Circles conducted on campus, but also the particular themes or critical issues discussed in each individual Circle. This provides the client with the qualitative data they need to determine where opportunities for growth, change and problem-solving may lie.

A step toward Coherence.

It isn’t accurate to say that conducting Circles of Influence is a better way to do focus groups—Circles aren’t focus groups. Circles are something different. They yield discoveries that are more revelatory, more helpful, more insightful and—for some clients—more incisive, as they often cut to the core of what a client’s true strengths and weaknesses are. Above all else, Circles are more truthful. The engagement you have and the responses you receive from participants in a Circles group are honest and candid, because the format of the conversation is, ultimately, more conversational and conducive to openness.

If you’ve read any of our writing on Coherence, you know that, at its foundation is the element of truth. Circles of Influence will lead your college or university to Coherence by helping to discern who you truly are as an institution. Choosing to employ Circles of Influence is one of the most effective ways of gathering meaningful and distinctive qualitative data that can be distilled in order to find your truth. As one of our client presidents suggested, Circles is like “holding up a mirror.”

Coherence—truth-telling—will advance your cause, because your truth is one of the few aspects of your institution that is completely inimitable in the highly competitive world of higher ed.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.