Using Focus Groups for Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E)


A thorough Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) exercise can take several months to complete. However, there may be times when an economic development practitioner may need to gather data quickly. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with the County of Simcoe and the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury to address this challenge as they developed their COVID-19 Recovery Plans. Instead of the usual one-on-one business interviews, we used a series of virtual focus groups to collect the business information they needed to develop recovery strategies within a short timeframe.

Our focus groups consisted of a small group of people that would typically be engaged in a BR+E exercise. We used a short-list of questions (no more than four questions per hour of focus group discussion) targeting immediate and long-term opportunities and challenges.

A focus group allows you to:

  • obtain more in-depth information about a topic than a traditional survey
  • test ideas and receive feedback immediately
  • capture detailed data quickly
  • encourage the sharing of ideas and experiences, which allows for learning and new connections amongst participants

I think one lesson we’ve all learned during COVID, is the key role the host plays when holding virtual meetings. Below are some tips for facilitating your virtual focus groups to ensure productive discussions:

  • keep your group to a manageable size – preferably no more than eight participants
  • have someone on the call dedicated to taking notes recording audio. It is challenging to facilitate and take notes at the same time
  • the conversation can move quickly in a focus group and you’ll need to keep the meeting on track. start with a quick round of introductions so everyone knows who they are meeting with.
  • ensure you have identified one or more questions specific to each participant, to keep them engaged in the discussion
  • let participants know when they are starting to get off topic, and gently steer them back onto the topics of interest.

These tips can help you get started if you are considering a more rapid way to collect valuable information from your business community.

For more information on the OMAFRA BR+E program, click here.

For some focus group suggestions and takeaways, review this paper – Using Focus Groups for Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) at the Community Level: Detailed Notes about the Columbus, Minnesota BR&E Program.


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