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3 min Read
November 19, 2019

Interviews, focus groups, and surveys: three research methods to understand audiences

A key part of the nonprofit communicator’s job is to reach and engage the people connected to your organization––the activists, volunteers, donors, and more. These audiences are essential to helping you achieve your mission, but what if you don’t know much about them? 

Your audiences can often feel like a mystery, especially when there are a lot of them, they’re newer to your organization, or you don’t get to interact with them directly on a regular basis. There are a few simple research tools you can use to begin digging into who they are and how to best engage them. 


Interviews are one of the more common types of qualitative research (research that doesn’t come in the form of numbers, but instead in the form of descriptive information). They are individual, exploratory conversations with people who represent the audience group you’re trying to get to know. 

Pros: Interviews come in handy when you want to unpack motivations, experiences, and behaviors. They can also be an engaging way for your constituents to feel heard by your organization. 

Cons: Interviews can be time-consuming to coordinate and conduct, so they may require a big lift on your staff or be expensive for consultants to conduct on your behalf. Because of this, it’s often only realistic to interview a handful of people within your audience, so the data collected is not always representative of a larger sample. 

Consider interviews when you want to deeply understand an audience member and their experiences or opinions. For example, hearing how your donor communications resonate or the motivations inspiring people to volunteer. I’ve written a post that goes more deeply into preparing and conducting interviews that you may find helpful. 

Focus groups

Focus groups are group conversations (ideally between 5-8 people) who share a common connection to your organization (e.g., all volunteers, all event participants). 

Pros: Another type of qualitative research, focus groups are similar to interviews but with the added benefit of allowing room for multiple perspectives on one topic and the ability for participants to build on the opinions and experiences of others.

Cons: They have similar downsides to interviews and the additional challenge of group dynamics––in group conversations, people may adapt their opinion or perspective based on others in the room, which can lead to somewhat less objective data collection. 

Consider focus groups when you want to hear multiple perspectives and have a group discussion. For example, try hosting a focus group of program participants to understand their experience or bring together a few event attendees to ask for feedback. Doing multiple focus groups also gives you the opportunity to hear from multiple perspectives on the same topic. For example, if you wanted feedback to your new branding, you could invite donors, volunteers, and staff members to respond through focus groups. 


Surveys or questionnaires are typically quantitative research, meaning they are focused on collecting numeric data that helps to identify patterns among a larger sample. They can also include qualitative questions that are open-ended and help to understand motivations and experiences, but it’s typically best to include just a few of those as they can require a long response time. 

Pros: Surveys can help you learn a lot about a large group of people very quickly. They allow you to ask a wide range of questions, get clear answers directly from your audience, and offer you data points to reference or share with other teams or your board. They are also simple and inexpensive to coordinate and run. 

Cons: Surveys don’t allow for open-ended conversation or follow ups in the same way as focus groups and interviews, meaning you collect more, but less nuanced, information.

Consider using a survey when you want to understand a larger number of people within your  audience, quickly. For example, you may have received a lot of new donors in the last six months that you want to learn about, or when you want to follow up with everyone who attended your recent 5K about their experience. 

Choosing and implementing the most effective research method is one of the first steps to ensure that your communications are responsive to the people connected to you. From there, this research can help you set priorities, choose the right channels, and so much more. For more on how to use audience research to set communications strategies, check out Big Duck’s webinar with Meghan Finn from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation