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Focus Groups and Inclusion: Getting Your Shoes Dirty

A focus group is not a focus group is not a focus group. People working in the development space have always been open to doing this "dirty work", sitting in circles on the floor in communities to talk to community members about their habits, needs and dreams. But today, more and more commercial companies are venturing into the low-income "market" using traditional market research tools and processes to gather insights from potential and current clients. This may partly explain why some solutions miss large groups of people in the process.


In traditional marketing, focus group participants are lured to a nice location with the promise of food and money to answer questions about a product, real or hypothetical that is described and/or passed around. What is often tested is the group's reaction to the product, preferences between two different products or perhaps it's packaging. While we can use many of the tips and tools from traditional marketing, low income households are not always that easy to recruit. If we want to make sure that financial services are truly inclusive, we cannot cut corners in recruiting participants for our research. We need to get our shoes dirty!

I was recently in Jakarta, where we used a traditional market research company to find new middle class consumers in malls and invite them to focus group sessions. This is an efficient way to find people, but will not attract all of this segment, particularly informal workers. One of 30 participants turned out to have an informal business. Instead, we interviewed lots of unemployed and underemployed students as well as salaried folks. We had a similar experience in Tanzania last year. When we asked an MNO to help us arrange a focus group, they used their traditional means and arranged a space in their downtown headquarters. The recruitment strategy attracted mostly young people in early careers, school and unemployed to sessions on mobile money. Is this our target market for inclusive financial services? Sure, but certainly not the only one. The vast majority of users of financial services in developing countries are informal.

To speak to a broader variety of people, we needed to work closely with local trusted channels to help us bring people in. We also opt for individual interviews to round out our sample. This allows us to choose people based on their occupation, location, gender, etc. that may not show up to a meeting because they are busy, distrustful or forgetful. Informal sector workers work outside the city and it's central areas and don't usually go to shopping centers or have the time to make their way downtown. A more effective way to reach this segment is door-to-door, or word of mouth in their own communities. This may not be the fastest, cost-effective strategy, but it will get you a complementary sample to the traditional means. It also means that you will spend some time walking around or waiting around in the heat, the cold, and possibly the rain. The best tool you could have is a sturdy pair of shoes!

A focus group arranged by a traditional market research company in Jakarta

A focus group arranged by a traditional market research company in Jakarta

Next week, I will be in Dar es Salaam with UNCDF at a workshop on small deposit mobilization, which will largely focus on understanding the behaviors of clients who need small deposits. I look forward to hearing about this, and learning about how they recruit respondents in the process!

For more tips on focus groups- join me today at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University at 1pm in room 801. I can arrange for non-SIPA students to attend.


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