Employee Focus Groups: A reality check for your communication strategy

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You can count them on one hand: those rare occasions when you’ve been given a real budget and adequate time to gather employee feedback.

More often, you’re assigned a project with messaging your client has already decided he wants to use. When you ask whether there’s employee feedback to substantiate the messaging, you’re met with stunned silence.

Unbiased employee research is as valuable in your workplace as external research is to advertisers who need to know what consumers think about their products. Employee feedback is the backbone of a good internal communication strategy because it supports your proposed approaches. Research can include a lot of techniques, including focus groups, which are particularly effective in helping uncover how your employees perceive their work environment.

Even if research is not your strength, focus groups can generate useful, unbiased feedback to support your strategy.

Before you begin a focus group

If you remember nothing else, keep these two points in mind:

  • It’s rarely about you; it’s about the employees.
  • Get a third party to assist if possible.

That’s it.

It’s natural to view the world through filtered lenses. We all perceive information uniquely. When you’re conducting employee research, you may be unconsciously biased in the way you seek input, which leads to inaccurate feedback.

In any circumstance where communication is required, whether you’re giving information or gathering it, always remind the people you support that the audience is processing information from the perspective of how it will affect them—not necessarily what you assume they think or know already. Keep that thought squarely in mind and it will help you ask questions of the group that lead to the truth you are actually seeking.

For my second point: If you can, partner with an experienced third party to conduct focus groups. Instead of just confirming what you think you know, you’ll learn something unexpected that will help you develop more effective messaging. If you’re not sure where to look for a good research partner, ask your IABC colleagues for recommendations.

Now, let’s venture back to the real world, the one in which you have no budget.

There’s a wealth of information online about conducting focus groups. Following are the processes that have worked well for me when supporting clients.

Preparing for a focus group

  1. Invite a random sample of employees. Invite more people than you think you’ll need, because not everyone will accept or show up. An optimal size is eight to 12 participants per group. And, of course, the more focus groups you can conduct the better.
  2. Ensure there are no boss-employee relationships in your focus groups. That’s a surefire way to kill candid feedback.
  3. Offer an incentive to get employees to show up. Food often works. Or try giving away an employer-branded item as a thank-you.
  4. Explain in your invitation how the feedback will be used and emphasize that comments will remain confidential. Your focus group should run no longer than 90 minutes to two hours.
  5. Create a moderator’s discussion guide to ensure you ask the right questions and stay on track. Have someone review your guide to ensure you’re going to get the answers you need (again, not necessarily the answers you want to hear).
  6. Be prepared to take notes or use a laptop to record the discussion. It’s even better if you have a colleague there to listen and take notes for you so you can focus on facilitating the discussion.

In some circumstances, lots of negativity from participants is welcomed. Call these participants the cynics (not to their faces, of course). Cynics can be helpful when you’ve already developed messaging and you need to know how it’s going to resonate with employees. Ask your human resources buddies to handpick some of the most negative, unhappy people for your focus group.

Getting feedback from cynics provides other delightful bonuses including:

  • If a cynic understands your communication, a majority of your audience will, too.
  • You might win over someone. There’s no better evangelist than a former cynic.

During a focus group

  1. Ensure that participants feel comfortable and remind them that their feedback is confidential. Explain how you’re recording their comments (whether it is via laptop, video, audio, etc.).
  2. Have name cards at each place setting so you can call participants by name.
  3. Someone may dominate the conversation; it happens frequently. Make sure you call on others who are quiet, because they might give you that one nugget of insight that transforms your communication.A pleasant way to diffuse the talker is to say, “Thank you for the input. I’m interested in feedback from the rest of you. Mike, do you agree with those statements? What do you think?”
  4. Depending on your topic, have the participants participate in show and tell. Show samples of proposed communication and let participants comment. Or ask them to get creative and draw for you what they would develop if they could. You might be amazed at what they create.

After the sessions

  1. Send your participants a thank-you note and tell them how their input may be used. You’ll build trust when employees see that some of their input was used to take action.
  2. Organize and complete your notes while they’re fresh in your mind; do it as soon as you can after the focus group. You’ll remember some of the things you didn’t capture initially.

Once you demonstrate the power of employee focus groups in shaping communication that drives action and behavior change, your clients will be more likely to support you in the future.

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