For many higher ed communicators, research can feel like a complicated, time-consuming task. However I've found that scheduling at least one focus group with our first-year students every spring can yield rich feedback that inspires my planning for the rest of the year. Here is how I make the most of it:
- Strategically select your sample. Our primary marketing audience is prospective law students, but gathering these students—let alone getting candid answers from them—isn't always practical. The next best thing is to gather 8-10 highly qualified first-year students who can still remember the process and are already on your campus. We want the opinions of those who "shopped around" and were accepted to multiple schools, so I invite students from a geographically diverse sample with high admissions statistics.
- Ensure good attendance. Plan the focus group at a time when many are available, along with a small incentive for attending (we find that providing a decent lunch works well). Draft an attention-grabbing email message that lets the sample know that your institution values their opinions and will use their feedback when making future decisions.
- Find a fair moderator. The moderator should have some distance from the topics being discussed while still understanding the goals of the research. The person should be friendly and warm, able to spark conversation and get the participants comfortable with sharing their opinions.
- Ask about media consumption. What resources did they refer to when selecting what schools to apply to? What media outlets do they find most credible? What helped them make their final decision? How did they first become interested in your institution?
- Let them review your current tactics. Show the group ads and publications that are being targeted to prospective students. What messages resonate? What doesn't work? How do your tactics compare with those of the other schools they applied to? Don't forget to include your website in the discussion.
- Test out new ideas. Bring samples of new concepts to get their first impressions. Probe into why certain ideas have more impact than others.