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Using focus groups to get a competitive edge as a knowledge entrepreneur

As a knowledge entrepreneur, you probably feel as if you've done quite a bit of market research. After all, you have a good idea about what's going on in the industry, read blogs, listen to podcasts, and know what your competition is doing.

That's certainly part of it.

Yet, market research is a lot more than a Google search and hours of browsing relevant content. It covers various sources and types of information, from market shares to average customer spending. Depending on your niche and your goals, not all of it is relevant to you.

Read more: 7 Easy ways to get out of the course creator’s research slump

Finding your target audience and learning all you can about them is relevant regardless of the size of your e-learning business. Interviewing focus groups is the most effective way to know what you need.

Define your customer persona

When you want to sell something to a target group, you need to know all you can about their needs, preferences, and the right ways to communicate with and to them. You’ll want to have a good grasp of this general representation of your ideal customer. Make sure to cover:

  • Age group
  • Predominant gender
  • Location (urban/rural)
  • Education level
  • Job titles
  • Income
  • Family size
  • Major challenges (these will help identify pain points you can later address)

You will use this information to reach your target audience effectively. There may be more than one customer persona you end up catering to, and that is fine. However, you'll need to have a personalized approach for each one.

Read more: How to define your learner persona and why that matters

Find a persona group you can engage

Once you know who your customer persona is, you'll need to pick their brains. This means finding a large enough group to make the findings relevant. Ten to fifteen people is a good sample.

They can be current learners, email subscribers, or people who answer your social media announcements for this type of focus group. It's best to have a mix of individuals (even if they share many similarities) so try to build your market sample from various sources.

Apart from what I've already mentioned, you can advertise that you need people for a focus group and offer incentives for signing up. It doesn't have to be a monetary reward. You can offer exclusive access to a piece of content, for example.

Read more: 5 Useful tips on reaching the right audience for your online course

Prepare in advance

Free discussions can be fruitful, but it's best to know what you'd like to find, so draw a guide for the topics that will be addressed and have a list of the pressing questions you need answers to. It's unnecessary to stick to a script, but the conversation can still feel free with some direction.

Read more: What questions to ask learners when you need feedback on your online course

Keep in mind the golden rule of market research: make all questions open. If you include yes or no questions, you might lead the respondents in a direction that they would not have gone independently. Open questions are great opportunities to genuinely tap into insights that will be valuable once you begin marketing your courses.

Be prepared to listen, ask for clarifications, and take notes. If something unexpected but worthy of exploration comes up, don't hesitate to take that route.

How a focus group interview should look like:

Ice-breakers – this can take five to 10 minutes. You might want to also gather some background information about the people in the group. You can ask about the last vacation they took, their best dining experience, or the most useful piece of advice they ever received from someone.

Awareness – five to 10 minutes should be enough as you try to find out when they first became aware that they need an online course or other e-learning product similar to yours. It's relevant to see what the initial need or gap was and how it came to light.

Deliberation – should be given at least 15 minutes as you look at the process that led to a purchasing decision. You want to know what sources of information were accessed, what made a difference on online course pages and their experience with various course creators.

Decision – 10 minutes as you explore what items from the deliberation section led to a positive (or negative) resolution – what ultimately sealed or broke the deal.

Wrap-up – five to 10 minutes for the focus group members to add what they think is important and ask questions should they have any.

Summary report and action plan – this is what you need to do after you finish the focus group interview. Extract all the relevant information and use it to build an action plan for marketing your products.

Closing thoughts

Focus groups are gold for marketing initiatives because as long as you interview the right people, you'll get amazing insights "straight from the horse's mouth." In a market where staying ahead means being informed, you'll need to have a good understanding of what your audience wants and what the deciding factors are when they're buying online courses.

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