How to Conduct Alumni Focus Groups | Higher Ed Market Research

February 13, 2019

Higher education institutions often come to Drive Research to assist with alumni market research. The studies typically involve further understanding and insights from the alumni CRM database colleges and universities have. If any type of CRM database analysis was done as a first step, it most likely segments the alumni affinity groups into different buckets. This segmentation analysis can provide incredibly helpful to a higher ed institution as they look to understand their database.


The objectives of alumni market research and focus groups typically revolve around several key areas. Higher education institutions want to explore the why behind engagement or lack thereof, understand motivators to engagement, and determine how to further drive engagement with alumni.


These and other objectives are often explored in the alumni market research. The results from the market research are used to drive recommendations for outreach and messaging to promote donations and engagement.



Listening to alumni groups and collecting feedback can have a large impact on job placement and donations to a higher education institution. Focus groups provide a window into the minds' of this affinity group.




Where do I get started with alumni market research and focus groups?

Our higher ed market research firm recommends conducting a series of focus groups with alumni, not just 1. An effective way to recruit for the focus groups involves an online recruitment survey sent to alumni to ask several relevant questions per the objectives of the study in addition to using the questionnaire to screen and recruit participants.


The benefit of this online recruitment screener are two-fold for the institution: (1) critical survey data from alumni and (2) using it to recruit participants. This is a great first step rather than trying to reach out one-by-one via phone calls or a more grass roots approach. Online surveys allow you to reach large populations of alumni quickly.



What is the process for recruiting alumni for the focus group?

Our team recommends holding a kickoff meeting for the project as a first step. The main goal of this kickoff meeting is to develop the questions for the recruitment survey. It is suggested this be completed in a Google Doc or Word doc so several team members can review and offer comments.


Once the recruitment survey document is finalized, it should be programmed into an online survey software and tested. The recruitment survey should be PC, mobile, and tablet-friendly. Send a test link to the internal team at the college or university first before launch. The survey should be branded with college or university logos and coloring to aid with familiarity and response rates.


The survey should take 3 to 5 minutes to complete and will include a maximum of 15 questions. This helps with engagement and response rates. The survey should address several key objectives of the study in addition to core screening criteria for the focus groups. Some of the questions may be further explored in the follow-up qualitative research. It is helpful to obtain some measurement data in the screening survey to help guide areas to dig deeper in during the focus groups.


Here is an example of how Drive Research might segment alumni audiences for focus groups. The recruitment survey may divide and confirm alumni participants from the 4 engagement buckets:


(A) Those who engaged every year over the past 3 years 

(B) Those who engaged once in the past 3 years

(C) Those who did not engage in the past 3 years but engaged in the past

(D) Those who have never engaged.


In many cases, the college or university defines engaged as donating to the institution. Screening criteria should also split alumni audiences to determine if they are local and would attend in person groups at the school or whether they are non-local and will sign-up to participate in an online focus group forum. All efforts should be made to make the focus group recruitment pool representative of the larger alumni population.


The survey is administered through email invitations and reminders. If response rates fall below the necessary levels to recruit for the focus groups, follow-up phone calls can be placed to alumni to fill groups (or additional sample may be sent).


These reminder calls are an excellent project for students in a marketing class. It gets them familiar with the recruitment process, screening questions, and market research.


Keep in mind, not all who complete the survey will be selected for the focus groups. You will want to phrase language in the screener that talks about the participant being contacted if they qualify and are selected. This prevents hundreds of people showing up for the focus groups.



What work needs to be done before the alumni focus groups begin?

Our higher education market research firm recommends splitting the audience among regional alumni (local) and alumni located in other areas of the country (non-local).


For the regional alumni, it is recommended you host the focus groups at your college or university. These should be evening sessions to allow all to attend who may be working a regular full-time job. Groups should be hosted on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evening.


Think about how to divide the groups by segments. Using the example above where we broke the participants down into 4 audiences, the first 2 groups might be separated by those who have engaged in the past 3 years (segments A and B). The second night of groups may be separated by those who are less engaged (segments C and D).


Each session should recruit 12 participants so 8 to 10 per group are seated.


In addition to the in-person sessions, your college or university should consider hosting online focus groups with alumni from all over the country. The breakdown of these groups can match similar segments for the in-person recruit. Each online focus group session should recruit 20 participants so 15 to 18 participate in the online focus group.


A key benefit of online focus groups is it allows research to be conducted with alumni anywhere in the country in the same session. Online focus groups offer 5 core benefits to a client: (1) savings on travel costs, (2) savings on time, (3) better representation of participants, (4) savings on facility costs, (5) and the ability of the client to view discussions conveniently online and participate from anywhere.


For recruiting, your college or university is to utilize the qualified individuals from the online survey to target invitations for the follow-up in-person and online focus groups. Respondents should be re-screened to ensure they meet all qualifying criteria. As part of this phone call you can also confirm the participant as an attendee. This helps your team take hundreds of online survey responses down to 12 participants.


Your project team should also draft a moderator’s guide, questions, and potential activities for the focus groups. Each of the 4 alumni engagement buckets should detail some unique lines of questions to address specific goals. 


Find a moderator or facilitator who can assist with these groups. It is advantageous to find a third-party consultant here like Drive Research to separate your brand from the alumni discussion. Alumni may not be as honest and forthcoming if they are speaking directly to an alumni department staff member or director.





The focus groups should cover a variety of topics including introductions and warm-up, defining what engagement means to participants, understanding why they have/have not been engaged, diving into motivators for engagement, what it would take to get them more engaged, ideas around better outreach and messaging, and many other objectives.


The moderator’s guide should be divided into categories with time stamps and sub-sections. It should also include placeholders for moderator breaks to talk with any colleagues or staff, written participant activities, and a conclusion. 


The conclusion takes place over the final 5 minutes of the group and serves as a catch-all to ensure all objectives were covered.



How do the in-person alumni focus groups work?

Your team should send all qualified participants a confirmation email with the designated date, time, location, and other key information about the focus group. Participants should also receive a reminder call 48 hours before the focus group, and a reminder text the morning of their focus group. To account for no-shows or drop-outs, the college or university should recruit additional unpaid stand-by participants for each group.

To conserve costs with facility rental fees, it is recommended the in-person focus group sessions be held at the college or university. A conference room should be booked to host the groups. These locations are often less intimidating, more familiar for alumni, more convenient, offer free parking, and more space. The recommended times are 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

The focus groups could be live streamed via a private link. This allows colleagues on-site to view the groups live from another nearby room or off-site location (rather than sitting in the room biasing feedback).





Having a few of the core staff team members on-site is recommended so they can interact with the moderator during breaks (e.g. “Jim mentioned this, can you dive a little deeper there?” Or, “Susan said we did not do this well, what did she mean?”) Sessions should be audio recorded as well. These audio files come in handy for reporting or transcripts.


Each in-person focus group should last 90 minutes. It is recommended each participant be paid $50 to $100 to generate ample interest and to reward the time of up to 90 minutes. As a nice gesture, at the conclusion of the groups, participants could be given the option to donate their reward to the college or university rather than accept. This is common with alumni market research.