February 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB1

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Using Focus Groups to Identify Rural Participant Needs in Balancing Work and Family Education

Marketing emphasizes understanding the target audience as a prelude to or concomitant with program development. This article illustrates how marketing techniques can be used by Extension to develop programs for the expressed needs of a target population. Six focus groups were conducted to learn the balancing work and family needs of rural residents in a Western state. Results provided program developers valuable information on how a program should be produced, priced, promoted, and where it should be held to attract the largest numbers of participants.

Stephen F. Duncan
Family and Human Development Specialist
Montana State University Extension Service
Bozeman, Montana
Internet Address: sduncan@montana.edu

Ramona Marotz-Baden
Family and Consumer Sciences, HHD
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana
Internet Address: ramonam@montana.edu

National surveys have found that balancing work and family is a concern of American parents. Roper pollsters, for example, labeled balancing work and family the "dilemma of the decade." The majority of full-time employed women with children report that conflicting demands of work and family place them under a lot of stress, that they feel bad about leaving their kids in the morning, and guilty about not spending enough time with them (Balancing Work and Family, 1990).

Concerns about balancing work and family suggest a need for and likely an interest in family life education programs designed to address this topic. While some Extension programs have addressed work and family issues, none were located that reported any assessments of client needs prior to program creation and delivery. Failure to assess client needs is likely a factor in under-utilization of some Extension programs.

In addition, the perspective of rural clientele often is missing from the extant work and family literature. Thus, a major question is what rural participants need in the work-family area. Only then can existing programs be assessed as suitable. One method of addressing the needs of rural residents is through the use of a marketing perspective.

Marketing emphasizes understanding the target audience of educational programs through empirical research, as a prelude to or concomitant with program development, in order to tailor the programs to the needs of the audience and, thus, facilitate their acceptance (Kotler & Bloom, 1984, cited in Levant, 1987). Thus, collecting a rural client perspective should reveal elements of programs and educational strategies that meet their needs, leading to greater participation.

The purpose of this article is to illustrate how marketing techniques can be used by Extension to develop programs for the expressed needs of the target population. A case study of the development of a program on balancing work and family for rural residents of a Western state is presented.

Marketing and Focus Groups

Marketing research links the "4 Ps" of marketing (product, price, place, and promotion) as the framework for data collection on which marketing decisions are subsequently based (Katz, 1988). Product refers to the total package of services, price represents the fee charged for the services, place describes the location of the services, and promotion identifies methods of informing others about the services. A primary prevention framework (Dumka, Roosa, Michaels, & Suh, 1995) suggests the importance of consulting the target group through focus groups in order to enable program developers to adapt "program content and processes to the conditions, value systems, and beliefs" of the group (p.80).

Focus group interviews are a consumer-oriented marketing strategy useful in providing information for the development of new products (Dumka, et al., 1995; Festervand, 1985). Focus groups are small discussion groups normally consisting of 6-12 participants of similar or varied characteristics, depending on the interests of the researcher (Fern, 1982; and Morgan & Spanish, 1984; cited in Lengua et al., 1992). The expressed needs of the focus groups are incorporated into the various elements of program design, including topics, selection of change objectives, length and breadth of program, cost, and recruitment and retention strategies (Dumka, et al., 1995). How these principles were incorporated is described below.


Through various data sources including a statewide survey of county Extension agents, the Building Family Strengths Task Group at Montana State University Extension Service identified "balancing work and family" as a critical issue and selected it as a new program initiative. In addition to reviewing extant work and family literature and existing programs, the Task Group used the marketing technique of focus groups to assess client needs prior to program development (Duncan, Silliman & Box, 1996; Dumka et al., 1995) from the six different regions of the state (northwest, southwest, north central, south central, northeast, and southeast).

Focus group participants were recruited using a methodology adapted from Community Action Planning (Schaaf & Hogue, 1990) called a "People Matrix." The People Matrix is a tool to assist focus group leaders in identifying and recruiting a broad mix of categories of persons in a community. For the purposes of this study we were interested in recruiting parents from various personal and vocational categories who were likely to be consumers of balancing work and family information. Persons who fit these categories were invited by the county agent facilitators to participate in the focus groups. Participants within each region were recruited from different geographical sites (north, south, east, west), from different cultures (Hispanic, Native American, White, Other) and from different age categories (young adult, middle adult, older adult).

The six groups averaged eight persons per group. The 49 participants were rural parents from a variety of occupations (for example, farmer/rancher, teacher, nurse, child care provider, business owner, mental health provider, homemaker) and family (two-parent, single parent) settings. The total sample was 94% White, 4% Native American, and 2% other; 88% female and 12% male, and 80% were between 30 and 50 years old, 18% were younger than 30, and 2% were over 50 years of age.

Following the "4 Ps" of marketing, an interview schedule was adapted from Lengua et al., (1992). Participants were asked 11 open-ended questions to probe concerns they had about balancing work and family, how programs might be produced, priced, promoted, and where they might be held, consistent with a marketing perspective. County agents were selected to facilitate the focus groups and received instruction from the first author on data collection procedures. Agents conducted the focus group interviews while an assistant wrote down participant responses. Written responses were analyzed by the authors for themes using an inductive approach adapted from Patton (1990). Each independently read and coded the responses by theme, then met together to compare analyses. Minor differences and discrepancies were resolved through discussion. Full inter-rater agreement was reached on the themes listed below.


The primary themes emerging from respondents' answers to open-ended questions are summarized, using the respondents' terminology.

  1. In response to the question, "What concerns do you have about balancing work and family?" four themes emerged and are highlighted. These were lack of time, lack of energy, conflicting demands, and safety and care of children. Respondents said they lacked quality and quantity time for family and time for one's spouse, proper meals, household chores, and oneself. Respondents reported lacking energy for family at the end of a work day. One person said, "all the kids get is tired, leftover me."

    An example of the frequent clash of demands of family and work is the response of a farmer who said, "During the busy times of the year, it's real hard to have a good balance when the work load is critical, during seeding, harvesting, etc." Parents worried about their spouses' having opposing work schedules and were concerned about child care, children home alone, and children not getting the attention from them that they needed.

  2. In response to the question, "What do you think causes a lack of balance between work and family?" five themes were identified. These were lack of prioritizing (not establishing and following set priorities, allowing others to set priorities, misplaced priorities) unrealistic expectations ("supermom" expectations for housekeeping, children, etc.), inflexible work situation (schedule not flexible enough to meet family needs, seasonal demands of farm/ranch), too many demands and commitments (kids and adults involved in too many things outside work and family), and under commitment to home and family relationships (unequal sharing of household duties, workaholism).

  3. In response to the question, "What can persons do to achieve a better balance between work and family?," four themes were identified. These were set and live out priorities (identify and prioritize an action plan according to values; make choices and manage time accordingly), keep work at work and home at home, maintain health (good eating and exercise habits, adequate sleep, stress management) and get help from others (involve family in household tasks, get outside help, delegate responsibility, learn balancing skills from someone).

  4. Answers to the question, "What source(s) do you currently use to balance work and family?," clustered around five theme sources. They were support network (getting help from family members, extended family, peers, mentors, maid services, school system), child care (quality child care, conveniently located, with drop-in options), spiritual strategies (prayer, church involvement, visits with clergy), time with family, and stress reduction techniques (prioritizing, organizing, getting away, meditating, relaxing, having/taking personal time).

  5. Responses to the question, "What kind of help do you wish was available?," were classified into six resource themes. These were more educational resources (how others balance work and family; resources to read, listen to, or view; workshops and classes, such as stress and anger management), more support from workplace (job flexibility), more community resources (house cleaning parties, more neighborly sharing, activity buses, improved infrastructure, maid service, cellular phone service, after-school programs for children, confidential crisis line, support groups, less community stigma toward those needing help, farm kids day care or planned activities in the summer), more family involvement (greater father involvement in housekeeping and child care, shared responsibility for home among all family members), informal support network (friends, extended family, neighbors), and mental health crisis intervention (crisis intervention, mental health referral, normalizing mental health treatment).

  6. The sixth question posed to the focus groups was designed to find out specifically what participants would like as a product of a work and family program: "If there was a program to help you balance work and family, what would you want to learn? In other words, what knowledge, skills or attitudes would you like to enhance? What outcomes would you like to achieve?" Responses clustered around four skill themes. These were personal management skills and attitudes (stress, guilt, and attitude management; ways to balance personal, family, and work; parenting skills), resource management skills (time and money management; goal setting), meal planning (quick but healthy meals), relationship skills (communication, conflict management, inviting cooperation of family members, communicating with employers about family needs).

  7. To ascertain what educational delivery system would attract potential clientele, focus groups were asked, "How would you like to get this information? What methods would you like to see used?" Respondents were interested in a variety of methods. The only major theme that emerged was that the methods used not take much time away from family. Options most frequently noted were mini-classes; workshops (short, concise) in a relaxed atmosphere offered during the day at the workplace or during kids' school hours; reading materials for study at home (newsletters, news articles) containing short, quick tips at appropriate reading level; audiotapes; videos; radio spots; and support groups. Involvement of community organizations such as the chamber of commerce, churches, and employers was seen as important.

  8. To enhance promotion, the question "What is the best way to let you know that a program like this is available?" was asked. Personal approaches were mentioned most often (word of mouth, personal invitation by mail or telephone), followed by the media (newspaper, radio, newsletter, posters), employers, and agencies).

  9. To attract clientele, the marketing literature suggested asking, "Where would be the most convenient place to have a program like this?" Familiar community sites (Extension office, library, community centers, schools, courthouses, churches) where a group already meets were preferred. Presentations to organizations also attracted interest. There was a clear preference for programs to be available where parents are, specifically the workplace, at home (take-home packets and videos), and that used new technologies (interactive TV and computer).

  10. Because time is such a scarce resource for potential program users, the focus groups were asked, "How much time would you be willing to spend in a program like this?" The major themes that emerged were quality and brevity. Depending on the quality of the content, respondents were willing to attend up to nine workshops. However, additional meetings were not very popular for most respondents. One person said "More meetings make my problem bigger." When a meeting is a selected option, participants were willing to invest only a modest amount of time, at lunch times, and during the early part of evenings. They seem to prefer things they can do at home or meet in areas where they already are (such as, at work).

  11. A key marketing concern is a products' price. These focus groups were asked, "What would you be willing to pay?" The amount depended on perceived program quality and length, medium (for example, newsletter), and participants' own financial situation. However, lower cost programs ($10-$30) were preferred.


This study demonstrates the usefulness of marketing approaches as an effective way for program developers to gather information from targeted clientele, helping to ensure that programs address real concerns and needs identified by customers. Program developers can learn much from anticipated audiences on how a program should be produced, priced, promoted, and where it should be held to attract the largest numbers of participants. The findings from this case study suggest that a preferred balancing work and family program would involve a modest time investment, be low cost, and involve the workplace, the community, and family members.

The program would teach personal, resource management, meal planning and relationship skills that would help participants address their work-family concerns. The material would be packaged in a variety of user-friendly ways that would not distract from already scarce family time. The program would be promoted primarily through personal means. The "Balancing Work and Family" program, developed along these lines, is in its early implementation stages.

Other questions remain regarding the utility of a marketing approach in program development. For instance, are programs that use a focus group approach at the pre-program development stage more effective in terms of both participant satisfaction and program outcome when compared with programs that don't bother with the marketing homework? In other words, is it worth the time given the ultimate product?

Clearly this is the case in the consumer product industry. This is less clear in terms of educational program development. Businesses which ignore consumer needs die soon. It is suspected that programs not designed to meet specific needs of the target population will also.


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