Stakeholder meetings versus focus groups, which to choose? They are both helpful tools for bringing in other opinions, perspectives, and even a dose of creativity that your team was missing.

Though people often use these terms interchangeably, they are not the same. They have different purposes and knowing which one to use will save some hurt feelings and help you achieve what you want. Below I have described when to use each one and who attends.

Stakeholder Meeting

Coordinate a stakeholder meeting with people directly involved and support the issue at hand. Invite people interested and invested in the ongoing success of the project. In other words, they have a stake in the outcome.

Mostly nonprofits and government agencies will bring together community stakeholders to advise and co-create plans. In a business, usually the board of directors and shareholders comprise the stakeholder list.

Stakeholders might meet regularly to gain a sense of how their investment of money, time, or in-kind contribution is doing. Stakeholders might also be invited for a specific initiative that needs their expertise. In this case, they would be involved actively throughout the length of the project, meeting regularly to develop and track progress and adjust activities or protocols so the goals can be met.

The end user can definitely be included as a stakeholder and adds something that maybe a financial contributor never could.


Focus Group

Facilitating focus groups

Focus groups can test an idea or gather important perceptions about a cause or product.

Hold focus groups with a group of people, often paid for their participation, to seek better understanding of an issue or need. Use them to test a hypothesis. For instance, facilitating a focus group might help a company understand how best to position a product in the marketplace.

A focus group is usually a one-time event and is coordinated for various reasons by a wide range of entities interested gathering or testing information. It is not uncommon for the focus group members to not have any idea what the information will be used for. Focus groups run the gamut in complexity from something simple like finding out if people think granola is a cereal or a snack food to examining the community’s knowledge of public utilities or gathering evidence to create ways to change systemic biases.

Formal focus groups are usually held in a neutral testing center with a section of two-way glass where executives sit hidden to witness the participants discussing a topic. “That is not a regular mirror. Quit fixing your hair participant #2!” (It’s okay if you say that, they can’t hear the observers.)


My Day in a Paid Focus Group

When my children were little there was a local toy company that paid $60 and a really cool toy if you’d bring your child in to sit in a room with the toy so they could see what the child figured out about it. Well worth the hour! They might have been testing just one attribute of the toy to see if a child could find it without a parent’s help—I don’t know and I don’t care. We had an equitable arrangement with the company and my daughter and I walked away with what we agreed to “earn.”

More than playing with toys, focus groups can test not only participants’ reactions to ideas, but also whether it will be a challenge to change perceptions about things. An artful facilitator will explore many avenues on behalf of the client, depending on the client’s goal.


What Happens When You Use the Wrong One

Sometimes, organizations (corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies) bring a group of residents together and refer to them as “stakeholders” because they are the identified group or target audience who might receive a benefit. How else can the organization deliver what the people want? They want to hear from this population directly.

The organization in charge of running this stakeholder meeting has not been shy about who they are. Full branding on all the invitation, literature, slide deck, name tags, and more. This well-meaning organization has started a relationship with the implication that it is going to deliver whatever these “stakeholders” ask for. Unfortunately, this was just a fact-finding mission. As is often the case, the data does not match what the organization is able or willing to do.

The organization evaluates this information. They might shelve the project. These mis-identified “stakeholders” now feel misled, used, hurt, and do not trust the host organization. They thought they were co-creating a new system or product and simply never heard from them again.

In this scenario, the host really needed a focus group that did not reveal its identity and didn’t make any promises beyond a gift card for a few hours of their time.



If you need information from a population who is not going to drive to a testing center and have their ideas probed for a few hours, then here are three alternatives.

town hall or public forum

Use a town hall or public forum to gather reactions and perceptions to an issue without any promises.

  1. Town Hall: Go to the audience but call it a town hall meeting or a public forum. Follow-up with the attendees. Keep the conversation open and ongoing. These meetings run best in partnership with a community group who will help bring the assembly together.
  2. Small-Group Discussions (Anonymous and Compensated): A neutral third-party  can run small-group discussions at local libraries or other neighborhood gathering places.
  3. Surveys (Anonymous and Compensated): A firm can also administer quick and easy surveys. Gather information at churches, libraries, laundromats, etc. with permission from the management.

Compensation: You can offer participants an incentive they can take with them after answering. Cash, a gift card, or something that might be related to the information you want are great. For instance, after completing a survey about the environment, thank that person with a drought-tolerant plant, a water filtration pitcher, or a reusable plastic bottle.

Be mindful of what you are trying to accomplish. Choose the seek-and-find mechanism that equitably rewards your audience and doesn’t belittle them.

Leslie A.M. Smith founded McCormick L.A. in 1994 offering public relations and marketing consulting to nonprofits and businesses of all shapes and sizes. Sign-up on her website today to receive helpful insights like this one in your inbox.  See how easy your promotional efforts can be here


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