Learn From Member Focus Groups

Your members are a captive audience, so why not tap into that resource for valuable feedback, comments, opinions and attitudes about topics that can improve your club. Creating focus groups composed of current, or even former members will allow you to explore, ask questions and try out new ideas in a relatively safe environment before committing funds to make changes.

Find Your Focus
First, identify the “focus.” Clearly define what the issues, topics and objectives of the focus group are — the fewer the better for each session so participants have less opportunity to go off on tangents. You need to narrow down the focus, but it’s OK to be ambitious with topic selection and ask questions you might never ask of the general public. Make sure to give participants an option to send e-mail or use a suggestion box for ideas outside the scope of the group. For example: You’re considering an online member portal.

Using the chosen topic, create a list of questions to guide the discussion and help participants look at it from various angles. Open-ended questions help reduce bias. For the example, you might ask: How do you currently pay your balances to the club? For what items would you like personal control in managing your member account? What tasks would you prefer to do at the front desk? Which do you prefer: reserving your spot in a group class online with a cancellation fee for no-shows, or standing in line at the start of class for first come, first served? If you find that the list of questions becomes too long, schedule another session to follow up with the same or a different group.

Select and Invite Your Group
With a topic in mind, use your club management software to tailor selection criteria for group participants based on age, employment, home address, type of membership, date of enrollment, survey responses or other criteria relevant to the topic. Once you have identified potential participants, send them a merged e-mail letter from your software with an invitation that outlines the purpose of the session, who will be invited, how long it will take and what the results will be used for. Indicate how to RSVP. Aim to get five to eight confirmed participants, which is a good size for gathering differing points of view without becoming unwieldy. Software can also prompt reminder calls to ensure you have a quorum.

Appoint a Moderator
The moderator’s critical role is to direct discussion (not become part of it), encourage everyone to participate, and make sure that no one monopolizes the discussion. Choose someone the group will trust (the GM or owner can stifle discussion). If you cannot hire an independent professional or college intern, a popular instructor might be a good choice — as long as he/she has some training in group dynamics and as long as the focus group is not discussing a topic affecting that person’s class or employment. Record the session or assign a note-taker.

Choose Location
Participants are doing you a favor, so do what you can to make things convenient and comfortable for them. Choose a location near your club, but not necessarily in it — the fishbowl effect of meeting in a glass-walled Group X room is not conducive to participating freely. Comfortable chairs, small notepads, and a flip chart or whiteboard for group ideas are important props. Reduce clutter and distractions. Offer childcare. Provide bottled water or snacks.

Compile Your Findings

Immediately after the meeting, thank all participants and transcribe recordings or notes —without adding bias. Notes and feedback should be anonymous, but some comments can survive verbatim for maximum impact. If you track degree of participation in your software, while keeping comments anonymous, you can run a report later to list very active participants who might be interested in future sessions. Look for patterns or anything that all participants seemed to have strong opinions about.

Focus groups provide an excellent window into the thoughts and opinions of those who will benefit or be affected most by the changes you are considering. This is valuable information, even if you choose not to go with a group suggestion.

Consider results carefully, but also remember that cost, space, insurance, timing and many other factors will bring you to your final decision.

Susanne Nauseda has an exercise science degree that she put to use in the industry for 10 years prior to joining Twin Oaks Software, where she has worked for the last 12 years. You can reach her at 866.278.6750 or at snauseda@tosd.com.

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