Embracing new voices: How to find and work with hard-to-reach individuals

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a common qualitative marketing research methodology. Focus groups offer researchers insights from a group of individuals who share their opinions about specific products or services and ideas on how to improve them. But how do you conduct one with a hard-to-reach audience? While conducting marketing research with niche groups can be challenging, it is not impossible. Below are some tips to consider when planning a focus group with hard-to-reach individuals.

What are hard-to-reach groups?

Many kinds of individuals fall in the hard-to-reach audience category. These individuals range from people who have rare illnesses and mobility issues, people who have lower or higher socioeconomic statuses or individuals who are simply difficult to contact due to lack of internet access. 

There are some strategies to consider when recruiting research participants and while working with them to make the most of their time. The insights they offer can be extremely valuable to your research project and should be planned effectively before beginning the process.

5 tips for focus groups with hard-to-reach groups

1. Consider pilot testing and social media in the recruitment process.

Before you start searching for your hard-to-reach participants, determine who your target audience is and how you plan to recruit them. In the article “4 ways you can foster more effective recruiting,” author Angela McCue encourages the use of a pilot period. In this short time, interviews should be conducted to get a gauge of who you are interviewing and who your audience should be. “The first few interviews may not be with the exact people you need and that’s OK because you’re learning about who isn't the right fit for your study and how to narrow in on who is,” says McCue.  

It is also important to consider recruiting via social media, especially when targeting younger audiences. Before you start social media recruitment however, it is important to understand the platforms available and who uses them the most. For example, if your hard-to-reach audience involves Gen Z participants, using TikTok may be the best option. Lisa Boughton, author of “How to recruit students for consumer fieldwork,” explains that some social media platforms allow for targeted marketing, which lets you specify age, interests and geographical parameters to find the individuals you need. 

2. Offer the right incentive.

While individuals may participate in focus groups because they want to offer their thoughts and opinions, a majority are swayed due to the incentives offered. It has become standard practice to offer focus group participants an incentive to show appreciation for their time and effort in your research project. 

Determine which kind of incentive you will offer before you begin the focus group recruitment and clearly state what it is when reaching out to potential participants. For example, are you offering gift cards, a prize or vouchers? 

“Incentives can often maximize participation by showing your respondents you value their time and are grateful to them for taking part – but it’s important to make sure you are offering the right amount that is both reasonable and proportionate to the time and effort they have given,” says Boughton in the article “Focus groups: A beginner's guide.”

While incentives are commonly given at the end of the focus group, Boughton argues that if there is a lot of pre-work to complete, offering the incentive at the start can help boost participants’ motivation.

3. Establish relationships with focus group participants.

Creating relationships with those involved in your project can help not only with the current research but also future projects. Since your hard-to-reach participants may not have participated in a focus group before, it is crucial to give them a great experience while encouraging them to participate in future marketing research.

4. Consider conducting a virtual focus group. 

Since you’re targeting a hard-to-reach audience, it is likely that they are living in various locations in the U.S. or around the world. Conducting a virtual focus group can be easier for the research team and the research participants. Online focus groups eliminate travel time and costs but require participants to have reliable internet access. 

In the Quirk’s article, “In-moment alternatives to in-person research,” Zach Mullen says, “The logistics of digital video groups can be a little harder to manage than the natural dynamic offered by in-person groups.” As a result of this, it may be best to reduce the amount of research participants you include. Mullen encourages researchers to set aside time for dedicated technology checks to ensure all research participants are prepared when the focus group starts.

5. Welcome participants’ unique perspectives.

Hard-to-reach participants often have unique experiences and can offer researchers valuable insights. The research team should try its best to understand their participants’ perspectives and encourage them to share their opinions.

Pete Denman, author of “5 key goals for moderators during research,” says, “To truly empathize, moderators actively focus on dismantling their own inherit judgements and biases to understand the story of the respondent.” Being welcoming of thoughts, opinions and stories can encourage all focus group participants to voice their viewpoints. 

The future of focus groups with hard-to-reach audiences

Marketing researchers and insights professionals have long used focus groups to gather information on consumer attitudes on numerous topics, products and services. While this qualitative approach will not be abandoned anytime soon, many question how it will change, especially when conducting focus groups with hard-to-reach audiences. 

In the article “Will traditional focus groups become a thing of the past?,” Boughton argues that researchers should consider blending techniques saying “combining traditional and digital research methods can be the secret weapon that gives your research that extra edge.”

Focus groups have adapted over the years. Marketing researchers now have many platforms to choose from when conducting focus groups virtually. More marketing research firms are also creating proprietary panels and launching new research communities to encourage hard-to-reach participants to become involved with the marketing research and insights industry.