National Child Welfare Resource Center
for Organizational Improvement
A service of the Children's Bureau, US Department of Health and Human Services
Focus Groups:
An Effective Marketing Research Tool for Social Service Agencies

Lead Author: Susan Webster

Lucky Hollander, Tony Scucci, Jane Hubley, Saskia Janes Butler, Helaine Hornby, David Karraker



1. Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups as a Research Tool
Focus groups defined
Goals of a focus group
How focus groups fit with social service program planning
Drawbacks of focus groups
Recommendations when using focus groups as a research tool
Summary of advantages and disadvantages of focus groups

2. Overview of the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Plan Project
Why and how the project was put together
Developing the community-based plan -- How focus groups fit in
Overview of the project's focus group process
Conducting focus groups in a rural community
What staff wanted from focus groups
Recommendations when using focus groups

3. Preparing for the Focus Group Meetings
Up-front planning for focus groups
Developing the questions
Deciding on the numbers
Locating the site

Establishing the responsibilities of the project team
Recording the meetings
Arranging for childcare and refreshments
Recruiting the participants

4. Conducting the Focus Group Meetings
Before the meeting begins
How the meeting works
After the meeting is over
Pilot testing the focus group
Mechanisms for creating successful focus groups

5. Putting Together the Results: Analyzing the Data
Where to begin
Steps to follow

6. What We Learned at the Meetings
Cumberland County
Franklin County

7. Next Steps for the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Plan Project

8. Applying Focus Groups to Other Social Service Settings

Recommended Reading

by Helaine Hornby and Lucky Hollander

One of the major goals of the five-year Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Project is to disseminate materials about new processes and content throughout the state and the nation. This booklet is one of a series that will be available from the project. It is designed to assist other communities who are intrigued by the importance, indeed necessity, of involving our prospective clients more directly in defining the services and approaches that would be most beneficial to strengthening families.

Chapter 1
Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups as a Research Tool

Focus groups defined

Imagine a group discussion among strangers which resembles a lively conversation among friends. It is led by a moderator, and held in a recognized location within the community, such as a private home, church, hospital, or school. The number of people in the group ranges from six to twelve; the meeting's length is around two hours.

Focus groups are a form of qualitative research. This type of research relies on words and observations to express reality and attempts to describe people in natural settings and environments. What focus groups do best is create the opportunity to collect data from small numbers of people discussing topics of interest to the researcher.

Qualitative research provides in-depth information about relatively few cases. In contrast, quantitative research, which uses numbers to represent opinions and concepts, provides less in-depth information across a large number of cases.

As a research tool, focus groups are designed to gather the experiences and perceptions of selected target populations on a particular topic. Focus group members are invited to participate by an organization seeking information on that topic. Focus groups can also be used in conjunction with other research tools such as individual interviews, questionnaires, and surveys.
Goals of a focus group

The structured discussion that takes place in a focus group is an effective means of gathering information about why people think or feel the way they do. The goal is not to confirm a preconceived hypothesis; instead, it is to gather perceptions, information, experiences, and understanding through discussion of a specified topic.

Neither is the goal to reach consensus, provide recommendations, or make decisions among alternatives. Information is obtained through open-ended questions and also from observations of the group discussion. To the participants, the questions appear spontaneous but in fact are carefully developed and put into a sequence only after considerable reflection.

How focus groups fit with social service program planning

Human service programs have an increasing need to be accountable -- to the community, to their clients, to agencies from whom they request funding. Organizations need to be able to show real justification for expanding a program or initiating a new approach. Funding sources expect programs to be relevant to the community and useful to clients and client needs.

As a result, service providers are increasingly interested in knowing more about how their clients view their services and programs. Focus groups can provide information and insights about the perceptions, opinions, feelings, and attitudes of clients or potential clients towards certain products and services. The value of the information is that it allows professionals to see reality from their clients' point of view.

Focus groups can be used to provide information to decisionmakers about how specific activities, programs, and services are perceived by different customers. The groups can be held before, during or after the program or service is provided.

Before the program begins, focus groups can be used in planning, needs assessment, assets analysis, program design or market research. They are useful for recruiting clients to an existing program(s) and testing a program(s) that is underway. After the program is completed, the meetings are valuable for program assessments and evaluations. Should they be curtailed, continued as planned, modified or expanded?

Drawbacks of focus groups

Focus group results generally have what is known as high "face-value" validity because participants' comments sound so believable. In fact, the results may appear so believable that the researcher's tendency is to rush out and put the focus group's recommendations into action without further investigation. The best plan is to wait and, before adopting specific programmatic strategies, take the time to do additional research and look for back-up of the results in the literature.

Another risk is using focus group data to generalize to a larger population. Remember that the group of participants, also known as the sample, does not necessarily reflect the entire population. For that reason, critics say that focus groups are merely an exploratory research tool. For an organization, the real question is: are the data credible enough to use in making decisions?

Recommendations when using focus groups as a research tool

If you must make generalizations from focus group data alone, make cautious ones. With so few members of each population in each focus group, it is not possible to draw enormous conclusions from this type of research.

If you are making large and important decisions where consequences of error are great, then research the topic from several directions; conduct multiple focus groups and use other sources of information as well. If you do need to make generalizations from data, make them within the same populations that made up the focus groups.

Whether or not you have a background in scientific research, it is still important that the focus group method be treated as seriously as any other research tool. Focus groups can get you all the information you need as long as adequate preparation is made. The key is to make sure you know what you want and identify your goals as specifically as possible.

Advantages and disadvantages of focus groups

  • Focus groups can provide speedy results. You can conduct a concentrated series of discussions in a very short span of time.
  • You can do research cheaply and quickly; focus group discussions are low in cost and relatively easy to conduct.
  • Focus groups provide a structured opportunity to collect data from group interaction; this is a socially oriented research procedure and people are social creatures who like to talk with each other. The environment sparks candor.
  • The discussion format allows the moderator to dig deeper into the topic if desired. This flexibility to explore is not possible with more structured research tools such as mail-out surveys.
  • For the researcher, the technique is easily understood and the results seem believable. Results do not have to be presented on complicated statistical charts but can be shared using everyday language, with quotes from group participants.
  • It is possible to increase the sample size of this qualitative research method without a dramatic increase in time on the part of the moderator.
  • Focus groups are appropriate for preliminary research to prepare for specific issues on a larger project. The method has the capability to explore topics and generate hypotheses.

  • The moderator has less control in the group than in an individual interview. Because individual group members can influence the course of discussion, it is not always possible to know if data reflect the behavior and perceptions of individual participants or the group.
  • Because focus groups are held in an arranged or controlled setting, participants may behave differently than in private interviews, and this may affect what is expressed.
  • Data are difficult to analyze. Be careful not to lift comments out of context or sequence or come to premature conclusions.
  • The technique requires carefully trained interviewers. While an untrained moderator can achieve remarkable results it is far better to influence the odds by using skilled people.
  • Because each focus group is different and has its own characteristic, you must take each group on its own terms; there is no cookbook method for working with the groups.
  • Depending on the available staff support, recruiting participants can be a difficult and time consuming process.
  • The discussion must be conducted in an environment that is conducive to con-versation. To attract the types of people you want, you may need to provide incentives to ensure that participants will come to the meeting.


Chapter 2
Overview of the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Plan Project

Why and how the project was put together

This book was written as an outgrowth of Project Maine Families, charged with "developing a Comprehensive Community-based Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Plan," which used focus groups as one critical kind of research methodology.

When it comes to child abuse and neglect, the media and the public tend to concentrate on the child at risk after the abuse or neglect incident has occurred. Among social service organizations, there is growing recognition that steps should be taken to prevent child abuse and neglect rather than continuing to develop more treatment programs. In addition, there is a new recognition of the importance of supporting the family's development by having ongoing services available rather than merely crisis-oriented programs.

This new perspective on services needed by the family is known collectively as the family support movement. Family support programs provide services to families that empower and strengthen the adults in their roles as parents, nurturers, and providers. Stated simply, the programs emphasize the need to enhance the capacity of parents in their child-rearing roles, create settings in which parents are empowered to act on their own behalf and become advocates for change, and provide a community resource for parents. Family support activities usually include such elements as parent education and support groups, information and referral services, drop-in centers, and child care.

What is central to family support programs is the focus on prevention rather than treatment, the recognition of the benefits of support through the creation of networks, and the marked change from a child-centered orientation to one that includes the child, the family, and the community in its program design.

Service provider organizations in Maine's Franklin and Cumberland Counties were interested in developing programs that strengthened and empowered the family, with the specific goal of reducing the risk of child abuse and neglect. The program idea for the Comprehensive Community-based Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Plan originated with Lucky Hollander, Cumberland County Child Abuse and Neglect Council, and Helaine Hornby, National Child Welfare Resource Center for Management and Administration (NCWRC), at the University of Southern Maine. Participating service providers were the Cumberland County Child Abuse and Neglect Council and the Franklin County Children's Task Force.

The program's aims are to address the prevention needs of the community, find ways significantly to reduce the number of children at risk, and reduce the circumstances and behavior that put families at risk. Project funding came in the form of a $1 million five-year grant from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The funds are to be used to assess community needs, analyze current services, and develop programs for all families, particularly those who are high-risk candidates for abuse and neglect.

The long-range goal of the project is to develop model comprehensive community-based child abuse and neglect prevention plans for Cumberland and Franklin Counties. The programs within that plan will be designed to assure the physical and emotional well-being of children, support the family as a nurturing and sustaining force, and help parents to raise children more effectively.

The series of focus groups conducted by the sponsoring organizations in Cumberland County and Franklin County represent only one step in developing these community-based plans. One of the central questions was what family support programs designed to reduce child abuse and neglect would need to look like to meet the needs of parents in Maine. Focus groups allowed the sponsoring organizations to go directly to the parents to find the answers.

Developing the community-based plan -- how focus groups fit in

The strategy used in the pilot project emphasized broadbased community participation in planning and implementation. The underlying belief was that it is important to push ownership out into the community, and to bring community stakeholders into the decisionmaking process: parents, service providers, schools, local government and community leaders, and employers. The techniques used to achieve these goals are those employed, until recently, only in the private sector -- market segmentation, focus groups, and marketing analysis. The steps are summarized as follows:

Project steps
  1. Define the community in terms of geography, demographic characteristics, culture and social institutions
  2. Identify and define targeted populations and their needs
  3. Develop an inventory of existing resources
  4. Evaluate possible strategies in light of needs and available resources
  5. Plan programs and services and develop messages and educational themes based on these possibilities
  6. Pursue funding for plan implementation
  7. Implement the plan

Data sources for project

Step 2 (above) incorporated the focus group discussions with different types of parents. This series of meetings was only one element of the data collection process. Other project data sources included:
  1. Demographic analysis of the county
  2. Community assessment survey
  3. Inventories of community programs and services
  4. Review of secondary data
  5. Search for information about innovative efforts, model programs and available funding sources

Of those sources, project staff gathered the following data prior to holding the focus groups:

Demographic research -- Staff compiled demographic data from existing sources and produced a report, Child Abuse Prevention: Demographic and Risk Indicators, summarizing data for Cumberland and Franklin Counties. The report presents demographic information in terms of the risk factors associated with the increased likelihood of child abuse and neglect.

Community survey -- Staff conducted phone and personal interviews with randomly selected individuals from businesses, schools, churches, daycare centers, and social service agencies in both counties.

The survey posed the questions: What do you think are the major concerns facing families today? What programs and services do you currently provide to families? Are any of these services related to the prevention of child abuse?

What emerged from the survey was the major need: family support in several different forms such as child care and parenting workshops. It also helped to identify high-risk parent groups within the community: working parents, low-income parents, teenage parents, and single parents. Staff used these survey results to select the target populations for the focus group meetings.

Overview of the project's focus group process

Cumberland County organized and conducted nine focus group discussions during December 1990 and January 1991 with a total of 58 participants. Franklin County organized and conducted the same number of group discussions during the same time period with a total of 65 participants.

Three parent types were targeted for the focus groups in Cumberland County: teenage parents, new parents, and working parents. In Franklin County, the three groups selected were low-income (including teenage parents), new parents, and working parents. All discussions were led by the same moderator from the National Child Welfare Resource Center.

Participants were asked to focus on several topic areas: problems their parents faced raising families; problems they currently encounter raising their families; needed or missing services; and ideas and suggestions for program and service delivery. At the end of each discussion, a list of 20 previously developed program/service ideas was distributed and participants were invited to choose their five favorites. Participants were invited to add programs to the list if they wanted, although these were not included in the ranking.

Discussion questions and program listings were developed through a collaboration between staff from the National Child Welfare Resource Center and the sponsoring organizations in Cumberland and Franklin Counties.

Conducting focus groups in a rural community

Even though Maine is generally considered to be a rural state, there are cultural differences, relatively speaking, between Cumberland and Franklin Counties. In comparison to Franklin County and the rest of the state, Cumberland can be considered urban. Franklin County is more representative of a rural culture. Some typical characteristics of a rural culture can best be described as follows:
  • People generally keep their problems to themselves or within the family; they don't talk about them to outsiders.
  • There is a stigma to being on welfare.
  • People are often wary of those outside the community.
  • It's not just what you do, it's who you are as a person that counts in the community.
  • Religious ties are generally strong.
  • Self-sufficiency is important.
  • Payment for services is often achieved through an exchange or barter of resources, rather than cash.

The rural philosophy inherent in small, isolated communities in states like Maine can color the entire process in a project such as this. The attitudes inherent in such a culture can have a direct impact on choosing a moderator, selecting a site, and recruiting participants. The organizers in Franklin County took these opinions and beliefs into consideration throughout the study. These impacts will be noted throughout the book.

What staff wanted from focus groups

The reason staff chose focus groups as a research method is that they wanted parents to know that they see them as the experts. Staff did not want to direct parents' opinions, but to learn from them.

There is sometimes a tendency among social service providers to "know" what to do for their clients, to "know" what their clients need and to lecture on those subjects. The focus group philosophy emphasizes starting with what the consumer says and then seeing what the experts say. In this case, focus groups provided an opportunity to find out what parents say they need instead of what human service providers say parents need.

This method lets potential consumers of the program design the program. They have the opportunity to state what the community needs, how that program should be structured and how it should be delivered. The questions that need to be answered: What are the problems in the community? What are the common issues? What are the needs? What services are currently available? Where are the gaps? Which gap should be filled first?

Focus groups can be very empowering because they give people the opportunity to say what they need. Low-income people in particular are often made to feel that they are resource-poor, value-poor, strength-poor. They are taught that they don't have anything to give, that all they can do is take. The structure of the focus group gives participants the opportunity to realize that they have talents, skills, and resources to contribute.

Recommendations when using focus groups
  • Make sure that the number of people in the sample group is large enough so that the conclusions have credibility. Recognize that there is a risk in relying on information gathered from too small a sample size.
  • Hold as many focus groups as you have the time, staff, and opportunity to conduct in order to obtain as much information from as many people as possible.
  • Select a skilled moderator from outside the sponsoring organization.
  • Allow plenty of time to conduct the series of meetings; don't try to do too many focus groups in too short a time.
  • Pay attention to the logistics of the planning process.


Chapter 3
Preparing for the Focus Group Meetings

When used as a research tool, focus groups demand the same attention to detail as any other means of data collection. Prior experience in conducting focus groups is not necessary but careful planning is critical. Planning keeps the project on target and increases the odds that you will arrive at your intended destination within time and budget guidelines.

Remember that the quality of data equals the quality of preparation.

Up-front planning for focus groups

Keep these steps in mind:
  • When deciding whether to conduct focus groups, first determine the type of information needed to address the problem. Ask these questions: Who wants the information? How will it be used? What particular information is needed?
  • Consider what other research methods are available and decide which would be appropriate for the project. Examples of other research methods include mail-in questionnaires, phone interviews, or individual in-person interviews.
  • Involve those individuals who have a stake in the study. Identify who will use the information. Ask the decisionmakers to describe their vision of the end result and how the information will be used.
  • Define who the clients will be in the study. That information could be provided by organizational decisionmakers, program and service providers, customers and clients who use the program, or potential clients.
  • Develop a written plan of action and estimate resources, procedures to be followed, the timeline and budget. The value of the plan is that it forces you to think through the steps in a logical manner, allows for feedback, and ensures that adequate resources and time are available to obtain the information. Have the plan reviewed to identify the aspects that are illogical, impractical or unclear.
  • Develop a timeline, including identified tasks, dates of milestone events and staff responsibilities: and a fiscal plan, detailing the amount of time, effort and money required. Examples of budget items include moderator's salary, mileage, research site rental, payment to participants, and tape production/transcribing.

Developing the questions

Questions are the heart of the focus group interview. The quality of the participants' answers is directly connected to the quality of the questions. Although the questions may appear to be spontaneous to the participants, the truth is they have been carefully selected and ordered in advance to gather the maximum amount of information.

When you're drawing up the final sequence of questions, remember that the same questions will be asked of all of the groups, to maintain consistency and to support the data analysis process. The usual number of questions is less than ten, more often four or five. Some recommendations:
  • Prepare questions carefully and get plenty of feedback in advance of the first focus group.
  • Arrange questions in a sequence that will seem logical to the participants; move from the general to the specific.
  • Use open-ended questions; avoid yes/no questions.
  • "Why" is rarely asked in focus groups because it implies that there is a right answer. Better to ask what or how participants feel about the topic.
  • Make sure the questions are presented in context. This can be accomplished through the moderator's introduction at the beginning of the discussion.

Establish a core staff group to review and finalize questions
In the Maine focus group project, one staff member who had prior experience with focus groups drew up a preliminary list of questions. Everyone on the team reviewed the list and made recommendations for revisions to this first draft. It was a back-and-forth process. You need to have a core group willing to make those decisions.

Questions for the Focus Groups
  1. When you were growing up, what do you think were the hardest things about being a parent? What kinds of problems and needs did parents have then? Where could people turn to for help, if they needed to do that? How did these problems get solved, if they did?
  2. Now let's consider being a parent today in ______________ County, Maine. Is it harder or easier raising kids here than it used to be? What kinds of problems do you think parents have now, particularly parents in your circumstances (i.e., of newborns, teen parents, working parent families, etc.)? How do people handle problems like that today? Is that the best way(s) to solve the problems parents have?
  3. I'd like to find out more about this community. Suppose a friend of yours wanted to ask someone for advice about how to handle a problem with one of their children. Let's say that the problem was that they just couldn't get their child to stop talking back to them, and wanted some tips on what they might do about that. Who would you suggest they talk to? Where could they go?
  4. What's missing that parents need or could use in raising families? What gets in the way of making these things available, in your opinion? If such things were available, would you use them yourself? Do you know other parents who would?
  5. When you think about what parents need in this community, where do you believe these things should come from? What kinds of people and organizations should provide them? What are the reasons they ought to take the lead? How would you organize something like that? Where would you start? Who needs to be involved?

Deciding on the numbers

One of the big questions is how many focus groups should you hold? To answer that question, look at the number of population subgroups you are studying. The more populations you are targeting, the more group meetings you will need in total.

A minimum is three groups for each population. If time is not an issue, continue holding focus groups until no new information is being provided.

The ideal group size numbers six to ten people, with a minimum of four and a maximum of twelve. When there are so many people in the group that people start to whisper to each other, the group is too big. The rule of thumb when recruiting is to over-recruit by 20 percent to make sure enough people attend. Too small a group runs the risk of being less productive in terms of the information gathered and the time and money spent by you.

Locating the site

The meeting site must balance the needs of the participants and the researcher. The possible locations are many and varied: the researcher's office, a participant's home, or a rented site.

The environment should be as neutral as possible. Avoid places with visual or audio distractions. For many people, schools or church basements are not neutral environments; although in a rural community the church basement may be a recognized gathering place.

The focus group location must be easy to find. Transportation may be a problem for some participants. If possible, locate the site near public transportation or arrange for carpooling.

When setting up the room for the meeting, arrange the chairs so that people are facing each other. Having everyone seated around a table is even more desirable. It is important for everyone in the room to have eye contact.

Banning smoking during the meeting is usually the best option; however, do make provisions for people who smoke.

Establishing the responsibilities of the project team

A skillful moderator is essential for a successful focus group. There is a big difference between an interviewer and a moderator. Think of the moderator as a gatherer of information, a listener, a guide for discussion. The same moderator should conduct all sessions (this aids in the data analysis process). When selecting a moderator, identify someone who is not personally invested in the study. The moderator needs a detached perspective.

Focus group interviewing looks simple but it requires mental discipline, preparation, group interaction skills, concentration, and careful listening. The sequence of topic questions should be memorized. The moderator needs to be able to listen and think simultaneously. This can be difficult and fatiguing work; it is a good idea not to conduct more than two focus groups on the same day.

The main job of the moderator is to make the participants feel comfortable so that they will be able to speak freely. Attributes of a successful moderator include the following:
  • Be comfortable and familiar with group dynamics and different kinds of groups.
  • Have a sense of timing and humor.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Be able to exert control over the group without seeming to do so.
  • Have enough background knowledge of the topic to follow up on areas of concern within the discussion.
  • Communicate clearly and precisely. It is very important that the moderator use everyday language understandable to the group to describe the program and its goals.
  • Appear like the participants in dress and manner. Some people recommend a male moderator if the participants are all men and a female moderator if they are all women.

When it comes to the recommended level of involvement for the moderator, follow this guide. A low level of involvement is generally appropriate if the goal is to learn something new. Let group members speak for themselves. The results need to reflect what the participants, not the moderator, think is important.

Choosing a moderator for groups held in rural communities
In a rural community, it is important that the moderator be someone from outside the community so people can feel free to talk. However, the moderator also needs to be someone people can identify with. Teenage parents, for example, respond to people leading programs who look like them. Low-income residents are wary of people with degrees and three-piece suits.

The group's perception of the moderator is key, especially in a rural setting where the culture demands that people fit in and not appear to be better than anybody else. The choice of the moderator must reflect this ingrained belief.

In addition to the moderator, each focus group must have a recorder. The job is to take thorough field notes and operate the tape recorder if the session is being taped. The transcribed notes are essential in recreating the group meetings. If possible, it may be helpful for the recorder to include in the transcript a record of not just the words but also any observed body language, nonverbal cues, and other group dynamics. Keep in mind that this activity is a very subjective task; it is easy to let personal attitudes slip in while recording the participants' comments.

It is also beneficial, although not necessary, to have an observer(s) in the group. The primary responsibility of the observer is to watch participants for nonverbal cues, body language, and other distinguishing features of the discussion that might not be noted by the recorder. This individual can serve as another pair of eyes and ears for the moderator and can be a very positive addition to the project team.

How the Maine focus group project staff put together a team
Staff developed a project team consisting of a moderator, a recorder, and observers drawn from the sponsoring organizations. There were real advantages to having both a recorder and observers. The recorder could take notes, operate the tape recorder, and respond to unexpected interruptions in the room. The observers were free to observe body language and other nonverbal cues throughout the session, as well as serve as a back-up to the recorder. Although both of these roles are sometimes not filled due to the extra staff time and cost involved, their presence can be worth the investment.

In addition, the project benefited from the fact that the observers had a background in social service, and were trained in observing and detecting cues that might not be recorded in the transcripts. Staff were able to gain real insight into the participants' comments by reviewing and integrating the transcripts and the notes taken by the observers.

Recording the meetings

The best methods for recording the sessions are by tape recorder and/or by handwritten notes. It is a good idea in any case to take notes -- tape recorders have been known to break down in the middle of the meeting.

There is benefit to using a tape recorder if it can be done in a non-threatening way and if participants agree to its use. No amount of accuracy in transcription will ever substitute for listening to the participants' comments on tape. Using a tape recorder gives researchers the option of listening not only to what was said but also to how the exchanges were made. The staff member taking notes can't always get down how something is said, and it is difficult not to interpret information.

If staff decide to use a tape recorder, tell participants ahead of time that the meeting will be taped and set the recorder up in plain sight. Many participants may anticipate that the discussions will be taped.

Tape recording group conversations is difficult. Check to see if additional microphones are needed and how best to place them. Don't wait until after the meeting is over to check if the tape recorder worked. Check unobtrusively several times during the meeting to see that the tape is running.

Videotaping the focus group meetings is not recommended. It is expensive, intrusive, and useful only for identifying who is saying what to whom.

Arranging for childcare and refreshments

Depending on the population you are trying to attract in the focus groups, offering childcare can be an important incentive in getting people to participate. If you are providing childcare, make sure children can stay in a room near the meeting but that they are out of sight and sound of their mothers and/or fathers. Having children remain in the room creates too much distraction and confusion.

If your budget permits, it is a nice idea to serve a meal or have snacks, coffee, and cold drinks available during the meeting. Snacks could be cheese and crackers, fruit, and popcorn, and cereal for children.

Recruiting the participants

The goal when you are recruiting participants is to create homogeneity in each group, but only in background, not in attitude. Homogeneity can be established by grouping people by education, occupation, age, or family characteristics. If the topic is experienced differently by each sex, it is not a good idea to mix the sexes. Nor is it a good idea to have husbands, wives, relatives, or friends in the same group.

Participants you recruit should have something to say about the topic and should feel comfortable saying it to each other; wide gaps in background or life style can defeat this. You can not ask people to talk about issues they are not used to discussing in public with people they are not comfortable with.

Recruiting participants does take effort. Determine at the beginning who your target audiences are and if you will do any preliminary screening of people. Remember that the participants will not be representative of the larger population. Rather, they should be selected from population segments that are going to provide you with the most meaningful data. Keep in mind that the objectives of the study are the determining factors when you are deciding which populations to invite.

Here are some recommended methods for finding participants:
  • Seek existing lists within the sponsoring organization(s) such as mailing lists or clients.
  • Obtain names from other agencies or organizations.
  • Obtain names from participants in other focus groups.
  • Do random telephone screening.
  • Run announcements in community papers and newsletters.
  • Post notices on bulletin boards in selected agencies, businesses and organizations.

In general, the response will be higher if you can make the invitations as personalized as possible. When you invite people, make them feel that the study is important and that their presence and contribution are important. It is very important to guarantee confidentiality to the participants throughout the process.

Attendance will be greater if you follow up on the invitation by phone or mail and offer incentives for participation. If participants with children are one of the target groups, let them know whether or not child care will be provided during the meeting. This information may mean the difference between a yes and a no.

Be on the alert when conducting focus groups within already established groups, for example, within companies or organizations. The focus group technique in this setting works well only when all the participants are at the same level within the organization. Do not include supervisors or bosses in the same group with workers who report to them.

Too much information ahead of time about the study's sponsor or its purpose may bias the participants' responses. Make sure that all of your advance information to the participants is consistent. Answer all questions but answer in general and neutral terms. There is no need to provide details.

Recruiting in urban and rural areas

In Maine, different approaches were used for recruiting participants in urban and rural areas.

Cumberland County (urban)
When recruiting people, make sure you find people who have the information you want. If you are working with a large population, like you would find in an urban area, try targeting the populations on a smaller scale; different degrees of "urban" living can be found in Portland, Freeport, and Gray, for example. Get as specific as you can in defining the population you are seeking. Because staff resources were limited, there were several populations that were not included in this project: single parents, parents of early adolescents, and parents of very young children.

To solicit participants, an ad was placed in the newspaper, and notices posted on bulletin boards in schools and day care centers. The notices mentioned the incentives, including day care, transportation (if needed), and $20 payment for participating.

The first phone contact with the participants is extremely important; be as organized and as personal as possible. Often this call sets the tone for all subsequent communication. Working and first-time parents responded to the invitation but it was difficult to recruit teenage parents. They were uncomfortable being seen as the expert and also afraid that they would say something during the meeting that would get them into trouble with the authorities.

Do not assume that the participants will show up. Follow-up is important: call a few days ahead of the meeting to remind participants; make a final call on the day of the meeting to confirm that they are planning to attend.

Franklin County (rural)
Above and beyond the three parent groups we selected, we would have liked to include other parent populations whose perspective would contribute to the project, such as step-parents, single parents, parents of special needs children, parents already in the social service systems, and parents of adolescents. With our limited staff, the target populations had to be limited to the three parent groups.

The absence of public transportation to the meetings hit teens and low-income parents the hardest. Staff picked up and dropped off teen parents, and anyone else who needed a ride. Even if your meetings are held in an urban area, you could offer rides or vouchers for public transportation.

In a rural community, you can get a good response by contacting people by word of mouth or placing a notice in the community paper. Because Franklin County did not have an extensive staff support system, staff identified service providers working with these populations who could serve as "recruiters."

Personnel directors helped us reach working parents (our focus groups for working parents were conducted at the workplace); social service providers helped us contact low-income parents; and new parents were located through nursery schools and day care centers.

After the participants accepted the invitation to attend, confirmation letters were sent by way of the recruiters. They then followed up the letter with a phone call. Because the recruiters were people the participants already knew and trusted, this relationship was of real benefit during recruiting. To maintain confidentiality, staff did not have direct contact with the participants ahead of time.

Coffee and doughnuts were available during the meetings. Twenty dollars was offered to each participant as compensation. It was also important that child care be provided during the meetings.

The scheduled meeting time was generally from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. Bad weather created a serious obstacle for high attendance; there was a low turnout during winter storms. The time of day can be important. Teenage parents, for example, could only meet during the day.


Chapter 4
Conducting the Focus Group Meetings

Before the meeting begins

When participants arrive, have the moderator and other staff people greet them and make them feel welcome. It is important to create a warm, friendly environment, much like a home, and put the participants at ease. Avoid discussing any of the issues that will be discussed in the focus group.

If possible, during this period, the moderator can take the opportunity to observe the group and identify talkers, quiet members, and any self-proclaimed experts, so that the group can be positioned in the circle accordingly.

Talkers should be seated next to the moderator, with the shyer members seated across from the moderator. This positioning gives the moderator the opportunity to use body language and eye contact to encourage or discourage discussion. Even better is to work ahead of time to identify people who might be talkers so they can be distributed among the groups.

The statistics describing who in the group will want to talk and who won't usually breaks down to 40 percent who are eager to share, 40 percent who are willing to talk if the situation presents itself, and 20 percent who rarely share.

How the meeting works

In the introduction before the focus group gets underway, one of the most helpful statements is for the moderator to tell participants that he or she is there to learn from them. Almost anyone will respond to a moderator who wants to hear about their problems and opinions, and listen to their experiences.

Before getting started, each participant could make an opening statement of an autobiographical nature. This step serves as an icebreaker and accomplishes two things: it gives basic information about everyone in the group and lets participants know that each person is coming from a different place with a different perspective and that that is alright.

In beginning the discussion, the moderator must provide ground rules and set the tone for the discussion by letting participants know that they are free to speak their mind. The goal is to strike a balance between excessive formality and excessive informality. The recommended sequence at the beginning: the welcome, the introduction to the topic and any necessary background, the ground rules, and the first question.

During the meeting, the moderator should keep in mind the following goals:
  • Direct the discussion toward concrete, detailed accounts of each participant's experiences. Draw out the observations that reflect the person's direct experience with the topic.
  • Direct discussion away from vague generalizations. Make an attempt to involve all of the participants in the discussion. People will usually join in if the discussion is about personal experience.

Two essential techniques that can be used during the discussion are the five-second pause (used after a comment to prompt additional points of view or agreement) and the direct request for additional information, also known as the probe. Both are easy to use and very helpful in soliciting additional information.

The moderator (as well as other staff in the room) should avoid any verbal or body cues such as head nodding or statements implying that there is a right or wrong answer. Keep your gestures and other body language and comments neutral.

Types in the group to be prepared for are the expert, the dominating talker, the shy participant, the rambler, the "needy" person, the community recovery expert, and the "confessor to all bad things." Each of these types can upset the balance of the discussion. Don't hesitate to intervene and bring the conversation back to the question at hand.

The length of the focus group should be no more than two hours. It is important to adhere to this schedule. If a good but unplanned for question occurs to you, wait until the end of the meeting so as not to throw off the schedule. The moderator must keep track of the remaining meeting time without seeming to do so.

After the meeting is over

Make sure a resource person is available in the room to answer any questions that may have come up for participants during the focus group. It is important that someone be available to chat with the participants, on whatever topic.

The project team should hold a post-meeting discussion to compare notes. Check to make sure that the tape recorder worked, and that there are no gaps in the notes that were taken.

To prepare for the data review step, a designated member of the project team should go back through the notes and the tape and prepare a written summary for review by the team members. This step should be completed before the next focus group is held. If there is disagreement on certain issues, these can be discussed while the meeting is still fresh in everyone's minds. This review step helps to guarantee that the project team members can reach agreement on the findings and interpretations of that meeting as indicated in the transcript.

Call each participant a few days later to thank them and give them a chance to contribute any additional thoughts. In addition, send them thank-you notes. Taking the time to maintain a relationship may be helpful in case you want to contact the person again for any follow-up or to participate in another focus group.

A few recommendations if you are thinking about using a program and services ranking sheet --
After each focus group meeting in Maine, staff asked participants to respond to a list of 20 programs and services by ranking the top five that they would use or that they believed were needed in their county. Our experience was that what people said during the focus group and what they filled out on the ranking sheet did not always correspond. This made it difficult during the data review process to make connections between the opinions expressed and the order of services requested.

Program List
Site Name ___________________________________________________________
Meeting Date ______________________________ _____ AM _____PM

Please pick the five programs you think are most important. Put a check next to the programs you select. You do not need to rank the ones you choose.

___1. Places in a neighborhood where parents can go to get information about raising children.
___2. Programs where professionals or volunteers make regular visits to parents' homes.
___3. Groups where parents can meet other parents to talk about raising children and give each other support.
___4. Classes that teach about raising children and family life.
___5. Parent-to-parent programs where a parent can be matched up with another more experienced parent who can provide help and support.
___6. Programs in which children are matched up with an older, experienced adult who can spend time with them.
___7. Mobile vans that travel through a community and set up information stands at public places like shopping malls, hospitals, etc.
___8. Places that parents can reach by telephone to talk to someone about raising children.
___9. Day care services.
___10. Information provided in the hospital for first-time parents.
___11. TV programs and video and audio cassettes that teach about raising children.
___12. Printed material and newspaper articles that give information about raising children.
___13. Places parents can go for advice when they are trying to raise children and hold a job.
___14. Flexible work schedules on the job for working parents.
___15. Information and advice about raising children provided at the workplace.
___16. Programs to help teachers and parents talk to one another about how children are doing.
___17. Places where parents can drop off children for a few hours or so.
___18. Places pregnant women can go for information and advice.
___19. Places where parents and family members can go for professional help and guidance.
___20. Opportunities for all family members to be together to work on projects and common problems.

Nonetheless, the ranking sheet is a useful tool. We suggest the following recommendations for people wishing to develop a similar ranking sheet:
  • Be as specific as possible; include actual programs as well as proposed programs. Also ask the participants to identify three programs they would never use.
  • Take a close look at any potential program ideas brought out in the focus group discussion but not included on the list.
  • Design different lists of programs for different parent groups. Make sure the program choices are tied as specifically as possible to the targeted groups. Not all categories (working parents, low-income parents, etc.) have the same needs or define needs in the same way.
  • Some parent groups are interested in basic needs like money and housing and are not ready for programs. It is better to ask those groups what programs would be useful if those basic needs were met.
  • Take the time to test the responses to the focus group questions and to the program descriptions on the questionnaire ahead of time.
  • Use people in your office, for example, to do a mock focus group. If their answers do not correspond in any way to the program descriptions, you may want to consider modifying the descriptions. The closer the answers to these two correspond, the stronger your data analysis results will be.

One more recommendation: develop a brief questionnaire to capture participants' reactions to the focus group meeting itself. Staff did not solicit their reaction because of a hesitancy to ask too much from participants. That turned out not to be a valid concern.

Pilot testing the focus group

The first focus group interview can easily serve as a pilot for the series. After the first meeting, reflect again on the wording and sequencing of the questions. Give consideration to such factors as the location, room arrangement, mix of participants, and the moderator's approach. If major changes are made, then the results of the first focus group are set aside and not used. If no changes are made, then this first focus group can be included with the others.

Be prepared for the problems that can arise:
  • Too many questions.
  • The moderator can't finish all the questions during the time allowed for the meeting.
  • The participants perceive the moderator as being too much of an expert.
  • No one shows up.
  • Only a few people show up.
  • The meeting place has problems.
  • No one in the group wants to talk.
  • The group doesn't want to stop talking.
  • Bad weather on the day of the meeting.
  • Children won't get settled and become a distraction.
  • Unpredictable or inappropriate participants.
  • The group gets stuck on the same topic.

The best mechanisms for creating successful focus groups
  • careful, thorough planning and follow-through
  • good questions
  • refreshments
  • comfortable physical environment
  • everyone in the room can make eye contact with each other
  • twelve or fewer people in the group
  • experienced facilitator
  • child care


Chapter 5
Putting Together the Results: Analyzing the Data

For a public sector organization, the data analysis process can seem overwhelming. The best place to begin is by going back to the original intent of the study. Remember that the problem drives the analysis. If possible, the moderator or the observer(s) should conduct the review and analysis of the data.

Analyzing the results of qualitative research can be complex. In quantitative research, the results come out the same every time because you are dealing with numbers. With focus groups, the complexity occurs because you are dealing with people. When different people answer the same questions, they use different words. In conducting the analysis, you need to consider how to compare different answers. For example, were the words similar, what was the context, what was the emphasis or intensity of the comment.

Analysis is like detective work. You need to look for clues, trends and patterns that appear and reappear in the transcripts. The goal is to prepare a statement of what was found, supported by the available evidence. Identify evidence that repeats and is common to several participants. The report must present the range and diversity of the participants' experiences and perceptions. In the report, you can also include any information gathered through other research to back up the results of the focus groups.

Where to begin

Analysis begins with the transcripts, the raw data gathered from the focus groups through a tape recorder and/or field notes. A few recommendations when transcribing tapes:
  • Edit messy quotations; just make sure you capture the intended meaning of the speaker.
  • Nonverbal communication within the group can be missed if you rely solely on the transcripts. Be attentive to the enthusiasm of the group, the spontaneity, the body language, and other nonverbal cues. This information should be in the field notes.
  • Numbers and percentages are generally not appropriate for focus group research. Using numbers implies that the conclusions can be projected to a population and this is not the case with qualitative research. Instead, use phrases such as "several participants felt strongly" or "most of the participants agreed that..."
  • However, it is appropriate to use numbers when tabulating any questionnaires or ranking sheets, as long as sources are referenced.

The next step is to develop summary statements of the transcripts. Out of this process comes the interpretation, which takes into account the summary statements and field notes as well as such factors as the intensity of participant comments, specific examples given, and the consistency of statements. Questions to ask during this stage of the review process: do the questions and answers relate? If you used ranking sheets or questionnaires, for example, do the program choices relate to the questions, the answers or both?

It is appropriate at this point to offer a word of caution to the data review-er(s): beware of seeing only the aspects of the discussion that confirm your particular point of view. Your history with the topic, your expectations of what people will say and your personal opinions can create a noisy backdrop for the analysis. Always make sure you are factoring out your own opinions and conclusions.

Steps to follow

Here is a recommended sequence of steps to follow during the review and analysis:
  1. Read the summaries of all of the focus groups at one sitting and make notes on trends and patterns.
  2. Read all the transcripts.
  3. Listen to the tapes or read the transcripts concentrating on one issue or one question at a time, giving consideration to these five factors:
    • the actual words used and their meaning
    • the context: because of the limitations of written transcripts, listen to the tapes (if available) to capture the tone and intensity of the comments
    • the internal consistency: did participants seem to understand the questions?
    • the specificity of responses: give more weight to specific or personal answers than to vague or impersonal answers
    • the big ideas
  1. Consider the purpose of the report; reflect back on the project goals and the information that will be needed by the decisionmakers. The format and scope of the final report will help to guide the analysis process.

Reviewing the data: one organization's experience
Analysis may be too strong a word for the data review process undertaken by the Maine focus group project. The goal was to spot trigger points and identify trends. The observers at the focus groups served as the data analysts because they had been present but were not as involved as the moderator had been. The transcripts were reviewed to identify the prominent ideas and comments and how many times these different topics were raised. The data review and synthesis consisted of a step-by-step process:
  1. Statements made by different parent types were compared in three main areas:
  1. Parenting problems
  2. Gaps in services
  3. Proposed strategies such as the nature of the proposed intervention, possible sponsors and lead organizations, and delivery mechanisms.
  1. The reviewers determined the extent to which the different parent types shared a common perception of these matters. Staff identified and accounted for variations among the types. Ideas or comments that were frequently mentioned and strategies that appeared promising were selected for further analysis.
  2. Statements made during the community assessment survey were compared to statements made in the focus groups. The reviewers considered the availability of existing resources and programs and services needed to address the problems identified in both.
A search was made for areas of agreement among parent types and between parents and community survey respondents, and explanations were generated for the variations.
Note: Some of the questions asked during the community survey should have paralleled those asked during the focus groups. Because the questions were different, it was difficult to tie the two data groups together.
  1. Demographic data were examined to identify target populations (such as families in poverty, mothers under 20); and problem incidence (such as family violence, teen pregnancy); and strategic alternatives were reviewed in light of these considerations.
  2. The major issues that emerged from this project were identified and then compared to the major issues identified in other populations, national trends, and national literature.

Remember that careful data gathering and analysis, and the consistency of data, are all critical factors when it comes to using data to develop program recommendations. These data represent the justification for the proposed program or service. When you are making a request for funding, it is vital that you can present this kind of information to funding sources to back up your request.


Chapter 6
What We Learned at the Meetings

As we have seen, the focused discussions in Cumberland and Franklin Counties were organized into five topic areas. All five areas were addressed in every group meeting, although the degree of interest and discussion generated around any one of them varied from group to group.

Topics 1 - What was it like being a parent when you were a child? - and 2 - What's it like now? - were intended to stimulate conversation, get participants comfortable talking with each other, and establish a foundation for the discussion of problems and service needs that came later. The third topic area - What would you say to a friend in crisis? - served as a bridge from the anecdotal phase of the discussions to the more searching look at problems and needs in each respective community. The list of program ideas was distributed at the very end, after the meetings had concluded. Participants selected their priority programs on the spot, before leaving the meeting places.

Participant responses for the first three topic areas are not sorted by locale or participant type. Responses were vigorous and lively at all the meetings, but they followed no specific pattern that can be related to where participants lived or what the current circumstances of their parenting were when the meetings were held. In all the groups, certain respondents remembered financial issues as being among the most problemmatic for their parents. Those who had themselves grown up in single parent families, or in families in which fathers worked long hours or were absent for extended periods, remembered their mother's isolation. The taboo against seeking help outside the family framework was a frequent theme of discussions about the past. People who raised this issue would usually also suggest that this meant that families tended to put faces on their problems more than they do now, covering up their problems or refusing to acknowledge them even within the family construct.

Other participants suggested that it was easier to raise families when they were children; drug use was not so widespread, people were more likely to accept community standards and values, relatives were more willing to step in and lend a hand, people weren't so separated from the places where families had established themselves as they are today. Many participants expressed the feeling that children are more at physical risk from strangers than they used to be; when the group leader probed for evidence to support this there was little to support the contention other than a single specific account of a child abduction and murder in a community where one working parent focus group was held. But there was general agreement that parenting is a more anxious task now than in the past, due to parents' inability to monitor their childrens' environments and associations. This was a particularly significant theme among working parents in all groups. But there was no consensus about whether parenting today is harder or easier than it once was.

The third topic area - having to do with how participants would handle an emergency call from a distraught parent - was variously interpreted from group to group as being a question either about (1) what strategy might be appropriate to settle the parent down; or (2) where the caller might be referred within the community. Participants suggested that they would let the caller work through his or her stress by talking the problem out, recounting what had been tried to bring the child under control. Some participants said they might call on the distraught parent or invite them to drop over. Parents receiving public assistance were likely to caution: "don't call (the Department of Human Services) - they'll take away your kid!" With regard to points of referral, participants mentioned a trusted doctor or nurse, parent support groups they had tried and liked or had heard good things about, local head start programs, mental health agencies, the United Way.

The fourth topic area related to missing programs and needed services. Cumberland County respondents identified child care, financial assistance, flex-time work schedules, workplace-based off-shift talks by community groups, educational opportunities, work at home options, sick-time for sick kids, and dependent care programs.

Franklin County respondents identified child care, information and referral services, drop in/drop/off centers, transportation, recreational opportunities, sick time for sick kids, employer based and employer-supported services, home visitation programs, educational opportunities, hotline services.

Top-rated programs.

For Cumberland County, these were as follows:
First time parent rankings were (1) regular home visits by professionals or volunteers; (2) telephone contact for parents to call about raising children; (3) drop-off programs; (4) flexible work schedules; (4) day care; (5) classes about raising children and family life; (6) professional help for parents and families; (7) support groups; (8) places parents can go for advice; (9) opportunities for family fun.

Working parent rankings were (1) support groups; (2) flexible work schedules; (3) day care; (4) support for parents via telephone; (5) places to go to get advice on how to hold a job and raise children (6) opportunities for family fun; (7) drop off opportunities; (8) TV/video/radio programs on parenting; (8) parent-to-parent matching programs; (9) information on parenting at the workplace.

Adolescent parent rankings were (1) day care; (2) support for parents via telephone; (3) opportunities for family fun; (4) places for pregnant women to get information; (5) support groups.

For Franklin County, these were as follows:
New parent rankings were (1) child care; (2) opportunities for family fun; (3) support groups; (4) drop-off programs; (5) professional help for children and families; (6) home-based programs; (7) information/referral; (8) flex-time opportunities; (9) telephone support.

Working parent rankings were (1) support; (2) child care; (3) opportunities for family fun; (4) information at the work place; (5) professional help for children and families; (6) advice for parents on holding a job and raising children; (7) flex-time; (8) drop-off programs; (9) in-home services.

Low income parent rankings were (1) child care; (2) opportunities for family fun; (3) support; (4) drop-off services; (5) professional help for children and families; (6) home-based services; (7) information and referral; (8) educational opportunities (9) telephone support.


Chapter 7
Next Steps for the Child Abuse & Neglect Prevention Plan Project

The next steps for the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Plan project are similar for both sponsoring organizations.

The Children's Task Force in Franklin County and the Cumberland County Child Abuse and Neglect Council have formed planning groups with community leaders as members. The mandate for each group is to develop, draft and implement a community-based comprehensive child abuse and neglect prevention plan. The goal of the plan is to strengthen the family unit, and support parents in their parenting functions, thus preventing child abuse and neglect.

Both organizations also plan to hold an additional series of focus groups in community settings, such as businesses and human resources departments, churches, and schools. The central question that will be posed to the members of these groups: What role do you want to take in supporting families?

"Human service providers need to learn the language of business so there can be greater exchange between these two community groups. We're operating on the assumption that people want children to be protected. And we're challenging the basic assumption that people can't do anything to prevent child abuse and neglect. What parents tell us they need is a community invested in its members. We want to ask businesses - are you invested in your community?"


Chapter 8
Applying Focus Groups to Other Social Service Settings

The use of focus groups in a social service setting redefines our usual notion of marketing. Marketing techniques formerly used only by advertising agencies or product research companies can make a valuable contribution to service providers committed to developing programs that meet their clients' needs.

In looking at focus groups as a marketing tool, it is helpful to consider the ways in which the method can be applied in different settings. We offer examples of several projects that successfully made use of focus group data to solve their problem.

Educating teenagers about AIDS

How to educate teenagers about sex is an ongoing debate, but when the goal is educating teenagers about AIDS prevention, the dimensions of the task are greater and the stakes are higher. The Researchers at the University of Southern Maine, with funding from the Family Planning Association of Maine, designed the AIDS Prevention and Education Project to learn what are the elements of a successful AIDS education program for teenagers.

For the first stage of the project, the University sets up focus groups at several Maine high schools to gather information about the students' beliefs, attitudes, and opinions. Project staff believed it was important to go directly to the teen-agers to get the answers. Four focus groups were conducted at each school, two male and two female groups in two different age brackets.

The central question posed to each group was, "If teens like you were designing the program, what would it look like?" Each group was asked to focus on what would make this program better and more successful than other AIDS education programs they had participated in previously.

Several key themes emerged. Most students were reluctant to talk about sex, birth control and pregnancy with anyone except their close friends. Participants in all groups said emphatically that teens do not think about AIDS, do not talk about AIDS, and generally feel that it is a problem that will never affect them. They would want to hear from a heterosexual teenager who has contracted the disease, preferably through sexual contact, than from a gay man or woman - because most teens believe their own experience is far removed from that of homosexuals.

These beliefs and preferences and others expressed during the focus groups were incorporated into a questionnaire administered at each high school to see if those opinions were shared by all of the students.

The next step will be to combine the focus group information, the survey results, and information about previous experiences with local AIDS-related training, education, and community history. This information will be provided to the planning groups at each school whose job it is to determine the scope and content of AIDS education programs that will be set up during the project's next phase.

Increasing parent workshop enrollment

A group in Boston made use of focus group information in a similar manner but with an entirely different population and problem. The Fatherhood Project, begun in 1983 solely for fathers, now offers programs for all parents. The organization's goal was to increase workshop enrollment and to offer programs that would jibe with parents' interests.

Their plan was to conduct a marketing survey of parents in the Greater Boston area. The survey method they chose was the questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of 20 questions designed to tap seven areas, including factors bearing on the decision to participate in parent programs, family communications and the balancing of roles, and demographics. All of the areas were drawn directly from statements made during three focus group interviews with parents from the same area.

The information gathered from the survey was then put to use in developing brochures and advertising. For example, one trend was that parents tended to think of themselves as doing a pretty good job but would also like to be better parents. From this finding, the Fatherhood Project wrote the brochure's opening sentence: "The Fatherhood Project offers workshops and seminars for parents who may be doing a good job, but who want to be better parents."

Changing attitudes about family planning in Bangladesh

Focus groups also work outside of western culture. This marketing research method yielded results in Bangladesh where an organization was producing a film on family planning for viewing by members of a very traditional Moslem society. The goal was to bridge the gap between a high degree of family plan-ning awareness and a low degree of actual practice. It was known that Moslem women were in favor of it, while men were not. Moslem men, therefore, were the target audience; the challenge was how to get the men to switch their attitude on family planning.

The strategy was to develop an approach that would motivate a Moslem man to discuss family planning with his wife. Because in that culture a wife could not initiate such a conversation with her husband, the effective message must break through the cultural attitudes of the Bangladesh male. Why would a man practice family planning? Focus groups provided the answer: because he's a wise man and obviously a rich man.

The final script for the film was based on a creative interpretation of conversations the organization had heard in focus groups they conducted with Moslem men. The closing lines of the film were taken directly from focus group notes: "I have been a fool, now I am a wise man. Be a wise man. Do the right thing. Use family planning the wise man's way." A year later, a research organization polling in Bangladesh found a 20 percent increase in the number of men who were discussing family planning with their wives.



Chamberlin, Robert W., M.D., Ph.D., (Edited by), "Beyond Individual Risk Assessment: Community Wide Approaches to Promoting the Health and Development of Families and Children," Conference Proceedings, November 1-4, 1987. Sponsored by Department of Maternal and Child Health, Dartmouth/Hitchcock Medical Center and The Bureau of Special Medical Services, Division of Public Health, Department of Health and Human Services, State of New Hampshire.

Krueger, Richard A. Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Sage Publications, 1988.

Levant, Ronald F. The use of marketing techniques to facilitate acceptance of parent education programs. Family Relations, July 1987, pp. 246-251.

Morgan, David L. Focus Groups as Qualitative Research. Sage Publications, 1988.

"Skowhegan High School AIDS Prevention and Education Project." Preliminary Report to the Project Advisory Committee, May 8, 1990, by the Human Services Development Institute, University of Southern Maine.

Weissbourd, Bernice, M.A., and Kagan, Sharon L. Ph.D. Family support programs: catalysts for change. American Journal of the Orthopsychiatric Association, January, 1989, 59 (1).


Recommended Reading

Bienstock, Caryn R., and Lynn Videcka-Sherman. "Process Analysis of a Therapeutic Support Group for Single Parent Mothers: Implications for Practice," Social Work with Groups, Vol 12(2), The Haworth Press, 1989.

Coleman, Loren, Susan Partridge, and Roy Partridge, Unattended Children, Human Services Development Institute, University of Southern Maine, 1987.

Franke-Ogg, Deborah, and Lucille Pritchard. "Parenting Education: Primary Prevention in a Rural Community." published in NMHA: Eighty Years in the Field of Prevention, The Haworth Press, Inc., 1989.

Hughes, Robert, Jr. "Empowering Rural Families and Communities," Family Relations. October 1987, pp 396-401.

Kotler, Philip, and Eduardo L. Roberto. Social Marketing, Strategies for Changing Public Behavior. The Free Press, 1989.

"Maryland's Family Support Centers: Partnerships to Strengthen Young Families." July 1987 - July 1988. Unpublished report by the State of Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Palm, Glen F. and Rob Palkovitz. "The Challenge of Working with New Fathers: Implications for Support Providers." published in "Transitions to Parenthood," Marriage & Family Review. Palkovitz, Rob, and Marvin B. Sussman, Ed., The Haworth Press, Inc., 1988, Vol. 12, Numbers 3/4.

Ray, JoAnn, Ph.D., and Susan A. Murty, M.S.W. "Rural Child Sexual Abuse Prevention and Treatment." Human Services in the Rural Environment, Spring 1990, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp 24-29.

Sternbach, Jack. "The Men's Seminar: An Educational and Support Group for Men." Social Work with Groups, Vol. 13(2), The Haworth Press, Inc., 1990.

Stewart, David W. Focus Groups: Theory and Practice. Sage Publications, 1990.

Templeton, Jane Farley. Focus Groups: A Guide for Marketing & Advertising Professionals. Probus Publishing Company, 1990.