In my experience, schools aren't that big a user of focus groups - which is a pity as they are a powerful way to provide focus for marketing, save time and money, and they don't have to cost very much. Here are a few tips for using focus groups in school - and as always please add your own!
1. Use focus groups at the start of the marketing process. You need to hear from parents, teachers and other stakeholders what is great about the school and what issues need addressing. You can also ask about ideas you have for marketing and how to best communicate with them (but only at the end - see points 7 and 10!)
2. Keep different stakeholder groups apart. While it might be interesting to have teachers, students and parents in the same room, it is likely to inhibit frank discussion.
3. Invite a range of people to each focus group. Don't just invite people who you like, or who you think will agree with you. Focus groups are about challenge. If you are finding it difficult to get people to attend, offer to donate money to charity for everyone who attends, or find a better time. Perhaps the best numbers for a focus group are 6-8 people.
4. Be as anonymous as possible and ideally find someone neutral to facilitate the session. Perhaps the most difficult focus group I ever ran was one where a marketing manager kept trying to get people to give the answers he wanted!
5. Record everything. In my experience videoing focus groups is an inhibitor, but taking a recording or having a note taker works well. The facilitator is not a good person to take notes!
6. Explain and use 'Chatham House rules'. Any comments made are welcome and will not be attributed to any participant. Remind people at the end not to identify individuals' quotes either. And make sure you don't!
7. Ask open questions before closed ones. 'What is good about this school?' and 'what could we improve?' are probably the best questions to start a discussion. (You can ask 'what sort of car would this school be?' if you really want to...). You can then ask about specific ideas you have had to market the school.
8. Ask for examples, positive and negative (but not names!). Try to get participants in the focus group to give evidence for their views. You don't need the names of the people involved, but statements like 'other schools have much better facilities' need explanation!
9. Don't be defensive. If you (or perhaps a school leader) are in the meeting, you might be tempted to start arguing against some of the points made. Don't! They are valid, and if a stakeholder is saying something negative it needs to be addressed by changes to the school or its marketing.
10. Ask about the media they read. At the end of the meeting, don't forget to ask participants how they learn about your school (and other schools). Include print, broadcast and social media.