No matter what content or structure you have planned for your focus group research project, the first thing a moderator needs to do in any group is to get the participants talking. When people walk into a focus group they generally don’t know anyone, and may not even know what the discussion will be about. Those first few minutes of the discussion can set the tone for the whole group, so it is critical to start off with an icebreaker that makes your respondents feel comfortable and willing to participate.
The icebreaker is the first question that the moderator asks in the group and is usually part of participant introductions. It is often the only question that participants will feel they have to answer, since it is hard to decline to participate in an introduction, and it’s their first opportunity to offer an opinion.
With that in mind, your ice breaker question should be:
- Simple. You don’t want your respondents to have to think hard about an answer, or have to respond with a complicated story. This is the first time they are saying something to a room full of strangers, so don’t ask something that they may struggle with.
- Accessible. Don’t ask what kinds of cars the participants drive or where they went to college, unless you are absolutely sure those questions will apply to everyone. The icebreaker should offer everyone a chance to participate, not make participants feel excluded or unqualified from the beginning.
- Light. Even if your focus group is going to address serious topics, keep the icebreaker appropriate, but light, like small talk at the beginning of the serious conversation. Don’t ask about current events, for example, since that could be both divisive and depressing.
- Not something that will create hierarchy or judgment in the group. Asking what people do for a living, for example, could result in participants starting the group feeling like their opinions might have more or less weight than others’. You want to avoid creating any sort of pecking order that might affect discussion later.
You may want to make your ice breaker relate to topic you’re discussing, or use it to gather basic data on participants. While you wouldn’t want to start out asking how participants feel about an issue, this can work as long as your research-related icebreaker is fairly neutral. For example:
- For a study with parents: How many kids do you have and how old are they?
- For a study with students: What is your favorite class that you’re taking right now?
- For a study on air travel: When was the last time you were on airplane and where were you going?
If the ice breaker you planned goes poorly, there’s no need to panic. That one question is not going to make or break a whole group, and a strong moderator with a solid discussion guide will be able to get things back on track. But starting a group in a positive way that makes participants feel capable of contributing and willing to offer opinions will make everything that follows easier.