Newspaper focus groups: Why, when, how?

Focus groups

Originally published July 2008; updated 2016

By Ron Reason

This year has brought several inquiries about focus groups: When does such research make sense? What kinds of things are worth testing? Who should do the work?

Later this summer I head to Africa to conduct focus groups for a startup newspaper. The client’s blank slate in an emerging market certainly warrants at least limited research in the form of focus groups. We’ll look at what’s currently working in the market, what’s not, where are the missing opportunities, for circulation as well as advertising. In addition, press tests of the proposed design for the paper, and several variations (runner-up logos, section names, etc.), will be shown to potential readers and advertisers to weigh their reaction.

My own views of newspaper focus groups: In more than 15 years of advising newspaper editors on redesigns, I have found some who favor focus groups, others who have said “screw that, we know what’s best for the readers.” There is no right or wrong here. It’s what your mindset, timetable, and budget can stomach, really.

Of those editors who have committed to focus groups, done internally or with an external market research firm, I have never found one editor who cares at all, or has time for, detailed quantitative research results – voluminous pie charts, bar graphs, data spread sheets showing the breakdown of responses to various questions. Same for detailed transcripts of the hours-long conversations they have probably already witnessed through a one-way observation mirror. Editors say, JUST GIMME THE NUT GRAF, PLEASE!

They only want to know: Which headline style was preferred? Did the red logo win out over the blue? How did a punchier, graphic representation of a story fare against the same one told in longer, narrative format? Should the food section appear solo on Thursday, or what if it was combined with “family” news on Sunday? How will readers react to non-traditional placement of advertising?

Should focus groups test every little aspect of a newspaper’s content and presentation? Certainly not. But when eliminating and adding features, it’s not a bad idea to survey the land. I’ve seen some real missteps prevented by smart “focus-grouping.”

Here’s my approach when conducting focus groups for newspapers undergoing redesign:

  • Decide who/what is to be tested. Typically, it’s a new design or resectioning of the paper, to be shown to 2 or 3 groups – existing subscribers, itinerant (once or twice a week) or former readers, and advertisers – current or potential.
  • Develop the protocol. For me this falls into two parts, with distinct strategies prepared in coordination with the in-house team, for each of the test groups:
  1. Written questionnaires. I prepare a distinct questionnaire to be delivered at the start of each session, then another separate one, for follow-up before they leave the room. Each of these serves to formalize and document the thoughts of the participants on how they view the media marketplace, as well as what they think of anything they have been shown.
  2. Verbal discussion/questioning strategy. For each of the groups, an objective script is developed to guide the discussion about new content, design, sectioning, products, etc. Room for “controlled deviation” in the conversation is built into this time period.
  • Conduct the research. Each of the above components is delivered; members of the in-house team take informal notes about what stands out in the conversation; questionnaires are filled out and turned in, then photocopied for all concerned to review. No need to do transcripts, audio or video that will not be reviewed anyway.
  • Followup report. Based on the oral discussion as well as a review of the questionnaires, I prepare a written summary of key observations. What were the big themes? Where are the huge successes, and any pitfalls? What ideas came out of the dark corners that we can exploit to create an even sharper product? Then I suggest any change in course from what had been planned for the paper’s relaunch.

In essence, I favor qualitative over quantitative research. I know how newsroom editors and publishers think and they don’t need or have time for the fine-tuned details. I know there are some who will disagree with me, including fulltime market research firms such as the one I encountered on a mid-sized market redesign a few years ago. In a week they conducted focus groups, prepared a 5-inch thick binder with transcripts and bar charts and spreadsheets that were probably never reviewed by anyone, and distributed audio and videotapes of the proceedings everyone already had sat through. For that amount of work, they charged more than five times what I charged for a redesign that required six months of work. At that point, I started thinking, there has to be a better – and cheaper – option for conducting newspaper focus groups.

If you want more information about focus groups, please email me at Sorry but I cannot distribute copies of my written or verbal questioning protocol, which is proprietary information and adapted specifically to each client.

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