Focus Groups for Football Clubs – some lessons

I feel very lucky doing the kind of work I do. I love the interaction with supporters, with officials, directors, owners. There are so many dynamics and relationships in a football club, and they need understanding, people need listening to, conversations need to happen.

I’m even luckier that from time-to-time I get to indulge in a project really close to my heart, and so it is that I’m currently working with another consultant on a review of communications, messaging and brand for AFC Wimbledon. I’ve been able to provide some professional advice and support on the big issues, but where I’ve been really active has been in surveying, and in particular, running several focus groups.

Without delving into the details, as the process is still in train and has to be respected, it’s been illuminating to me professionally to be able to help guide some really constructive discussions on what Wimbledon as a club means to its supporters – and in this case its owners.

We can all agree about how important it is to listen to others, but the problem can often be that we don’t necessarily choose the right way to do it. We might focus too much on surveying, or very tightly managed consultative groups. And we might default to a presentation and Q&A, rather a conversation.

Giving Wimbledon supporters, albeit only relatively small groups of them, the opportunity to express how they feel about the direction of the club as it prepares to return to its Plough Lane home, and following 15 years of nearly unbroken success, has been fascinating and enjoyable. There has been a maturity to the discussion that I hoped for, but which has exceeded my expectations. It has justified my view that if you give people the chance to to engage meaningfully, it can reap rewards.

Here’s a brief takeaway from my experiences so far:

  1. Don’t try to perfect the process: I’ve followed some professional guidelines, like this from B2B International and thought carefully about what I’m doing, but in many ways it’s about getting on with it, and guiding a discussion, not perfecting a process.
  2. Expect criticism, but deal with it constructively: There is bound to be some, but reflect on it, don’t bristle. Admittedly, in football it can be a bit different to other organisations or businesses (how many businesses have to deal with their ‘customers’ singing rude songs at them when things aren’t working so well?!), but the face-to-face nature of this process is really worthwhile, most of all because where there is criticism, it can be discussed, understood better and in context.
  3. Use a third party where you can: I’m not divorced from the whole issue, as I’m a fan of the club myself. Some people might consider that a conflict of interest, but professionally I don’t believe it is one that can’t be managed. The key is that I’m seen as someone who can allow people to have the conversation they want, without pushing it in a pre-determined direction. Gentle probing and encouragement have I believe, really opened up people’s confidence to talk about things as they see them.

 

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