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The challenges of doing audience focus groups

Over the last six months, Jessica van Roye has been an intern with the MeCETES team at the University of York. Here, she reflects on the challenges of organising audience focus groups in the UK and Germany.

For the MeCETES project we wanted to speak to people in Britain and Germany about their views on European film. So we decided to do audience focus groups in York and Dorsten (a small town in Germany where I am from).

In theory this sounds quite simple. But if you have never done a focus group before, preparing one is tough stuff.

University of York Library 1

Venue 1: DVD Room, University of York Library, York, UK

Pilot focus group

My supervisor Dr Huw Jones and I began by preparing a pilot focus group involving some friends of mine from the University of York. Looking back now, there were a number of problems.

Firstly, we started off by introducing the project to them and showing them some trailers of European films. So good so far.

Then we started a “discussion”, by which I mean we asked a series of questions and the participants wrote down their answers on a form. As you can imagine, they spent more time writing than talking.

It got a bit better later when we started to directly address people. But unfortunately some forgot to write their answers down (I have no idea why we ever thought this was a good idea, because we were recording the conservation in any case).

I wouldn’t say it was a complete failure, because we got our information. But it was awkward, very awkward.

Centre for Early Music

Venue 2: National Centre for Early Music, York, UK

Take two

If you never fail, you cannot learn from your mistakes. So we Skyped our colleagues from the MeCETES project in Copenhagen, who had done several focus groups before, for some advice.

They gave us some tips on how to get the conversation going and still get as much important information as possible.

After that we worked on some “games” to replace all the box ticking and form filling.

We reduced the number of questions and came up with a “word association game”, where participants would select a word and assign it to either US/Hollywood, European or British film.

The word association game

Our word association game

We used colleagues as guinea pigs to try it out, and after we got their OK, we went on recruiting people for the real focus groups.


To recruit people, we created an online screener questionnaire where people could tick the films that they had seen or heard of. This way we could get them into groups of people who have seen a lot of European films and of those who have seen less.

We tried to get as many people as possible by promising them a £10 gift voucher. The plan was to get people from different social backgrounds and different age groups.

In the end, most of those who came heard about it through the University of York staff digest. Getting people to take part in a focus group is a lot harder than you’d think it’d be. A lot!

Location, location

The first two focus groups took place in early December 2015. As a venue, we used the University of York Library’s DVD screening room – not the best location in terms of facilities, but it cost us nothing to book. Still, we managed to make this whole situation seem not too amateur, and got some good responses for our participants.

Venue 3: Zeche Fürst Leopold, Dorsten, Germany

Venue 3: Zeche Fürst Leopold, Dorsten, Germany

For the next set of focus groups we moved to more a professional room at the National Centre for Early Music in York. If you are planning on doing focus groups in York, I can highly recommend it: hot drinks, biscuits (not the cheap ones), a nice room, and every now and then some early music.

We did a total of six groups at the centre in late December and early January 2016: some only consistent of three people, other filled the room with eight people. All of them went really well.

To get everyone to talk we started by showing three trailers of films that some of the participants already had seen, followed by three trailers of films that none of them had seen. We tried to keep a friendly atmosphere and include everybody.

Next stop: Germany

After each focus group, I type up a transcript of the discussion. (Again, if you are planning on doing focus groups be sure to have someone that is willing to transcribe 15 hours of recording!)

Article call for focus groups participants in local German newspaper

Article calling for focus groups participants in local German newspaper

Meanwhile, I also looked for a focus group venue in my hometown in Germany. After a lot of trouble finding a suitable location (particularly difficult when you are based in another county), we managed to set dates up for mid-February 2016.

I translated the online screener questionnaire, consent forms and other material into German, but realised that the only people who wanted to participate are my parents and my friends!

Since I was back in Germany by that time, I managed to get the local newspaper to print an article about the upcoming focus groups. It worked: we managed to recruit another eight participants, which is not a lot, but it was enough for our purposes.

Our four focus groups in Germany went very well. It was a very relaxed atmosphere where everyone was able to say what they wanted.

Since I am personally interested in film, I loved running the focus groups. And because I was present in all the eight focus groups we did in York, it was easy to moderate one myself.

I’d recommend taking part in a focus group before doing one yourself: it spares you all the awkward moments we had to go through.


Generally the biggest issue we faced was recruiting people. I don’t know if people just dislike European film, if we weren’t offering enough money as an incentive, bad timing or bad advertising. But I do know that everyone who participated said they enjoyed it a lot.

So my advice would be to participate in a focus group before running one yourself, make them as fun as possible, and get your participants to tell their friends and family about it. Then do the next groups a week later and reap the rewards of word-of-mouth advertising.

So what did I learn from all of this? Nobody knows what a focus group is. Being prepared makes you seem professional. People give you information if you are friendly and positive. And transcribing is very boring!

Jessica van Roye is an intern at the University of York working on the MeCETES project. She is currently doing a BA in English Translation at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germersheim. Her placement at the University of York received support from the Erasmus+ traineeship programme.

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