How to create an effective discussion guide for B2B research

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Published Dec 12, 2019 | Written by Katie Hughes

Editors note: This blog was originally published in June 2017 and has since been updated for optimal accuracy and relevance.

In contract manufacturing marketing, understanding your audience and conveying your unique value proposition is crucial in helping differentiate you from competitors.

One thing that can help you with this process is qualitative research. It provides a window to your target audience's needs, pain points and decision-making processes, enabling you to tailor your offerings and messages to resonate powerfully with them. And it can illuminate your services' unique aspects, helping you articulate a compelling value proposition that sets you apart in a crowded market.

In this blog post, we discuss how to create a discussion guide so you can get as much insight from your qualitative research as possible.

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What is a discussion guide?

 A discussion guide is a list of topics, questions and tasks used in qualitative research.

When conducting interviews or focus groups for your B2B research, whether capturing feedback on a product or carrying out buyer persona interviews, a discussion guide is a vital tool for ensuring you make the best use of your time and gain greater insight.

Unlike a quantitative online survey that features a series of multiple choice questions, a discussion guide is intended to be used as a reference tool for the interviewer to ensure they cover off the key topics defined in the research objectives. Questions don’t need to be read out word for word, and your guide should be flexible in allowing you to be reactive to what the respondent says.

Before you start

Before you start writing your discussion guide, here are a few things to consider.

What are your aims and objectives?

First things first, lay the groundwork. What are the core aims and objectives of your research? What is the essential question - if there's only one insight to be gleaned from the research, what should it be?

This will give you a focus and direction for writing your discussion guide and will ensure you cover everything you need to.

One-on-one interview or focus group?

Your discussion guide may vary significantly depending on whether you conduct a one-on-one interview or facilitate a focus group. 

In one-on-one interviews, the discussion guide can be more flexible and in-depth. You have a greater opportunity to explore topics deeply and follow interesting tangents that may arise during the conversation. You can also tailor the conversation to the individual's specific experiences and roles. The pace can be adjusted to suit the interviewee, and sensitive topics can be handled with care.

On the other hand, a discussion guide for focus groups needs to facilitate group interaction and manage the dynamics of multiple participants. The questions might be more structured and general to ensure they are relevant to all participants. The guide should also include strategies for encouraging quieter participants to speak up and preventing one or two individuals from dominating the conversation. It's also crucial to plan for activities or questions that stimulate interaction among group members. The pace might be quicker, with less time to explore individual responses in depth.

Structuring your discussion guide

It’s helpful to create the discussion guide with the thought of a conversation in mind rather than focusing on generating a list of questions.

You want to think about the logical flow of the discussion. Ask yourself: what are the topics that should come first, and what will flow naturally? Take a ‘funnel’ approach and start with broad, open questions, and then drill down into more specific areas, possibly with prompts rather than exact questions.

Think of the topic areas you want to cover and create them as separate sections. Then build your questions and prompts into these sections. Ensure you have a clear objective for each section and include this in the guide as a reminder to the moderator.

The introduction

This section of the discussion guide aims to introduce the research, explain how the session will work, and get respondents warmed up. Here's an example of the key things to cover:

  • Introduce yourself and thank the respondent for taking part
  • Present the purpose of the research and why you are doing it (e.g. to improve services for customers)
  • Reference how long the interview/focus group will take
  • Briefly outline the topics you will be discussing
  • Explain the session format (e.g. no right or wrong answers, informal discussion, use of audio/video recording etc.)
  • Reassure them that their answers are confidential and won’t be used publicly without their permission (assuming this is the case!)
  • Prompt them to ask any questions they have before you begin
  • Ask them to introduce themselves – the aim here is to get them warmed up to feel comfortable talking to you

Contextual exploration

You don’t want to dive straight into the detail; you want to build up to it.

For example, if you are exploring perceptions of your company website to identify areas for improvement, you don’t want to go straight into asking them what they think of it. First, you could explore what they think makes a ‘great’ website and what they look for from manufacturing websites. 

This will be useful context for understanding their views of your website when you come to it later, and you will be able to refer back to what they said.

Focused exploration

Here you want to get into the focus of your research. You may choose to break this down into more than one section. Taking the website evaluation example, you may have sections on:

  • ‘Overall reactions’ – explore likes/dislikes, ease of use, design, etc.
  • ‘Detailed reactions’ – explore views of specific pages and features in turn
  • ‘Opportunities for improvement’ – identify specific areas for developing the website that will better meet audience needs 

Summary and reflection

Close the session by asking respondents to summarise their key thoughts.

It’s worthwhile having a few prompts here. For example, if testing reactions to new propositions, you may ask, ‘Which proposition is most appealing to you and why?’ and ‘What three key things should x organisation take away from this session?’ (Hint: Consider filming this - with the respondents’ permission - videos will help bring your research to life).

Useful tips

  • Keep the research aim and objectives top of mind when creating your guide
  • Keep your guide simple, so your primary focus is on the respondent
  • Allocate time for each section so that you consider the pace of the interview
  • Develop probes that will elicit more detailed and elaborate responses to key questions – these should be prompts, not exact questions
  • Avoid asking leading questions 
  • Try the guide out on a colleague first – does the discussion move in a way that feels natural?
  • Where possible, ask research participants to talk through real-life examples – it can be difficult for people to know what they would do in hypothetical situations, and just because they say they behave a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they do!
  • Make focus groups interactive to keep respondents engaged - let them voice their opinion in different ways (e.g. voting with stickers) and organise team tasks


Preparation is key to conducting B2B research. A well-developed discussion guide will help you to feel confident that you will get the most out of your interviews or groups. Just the practice of creating the guide enables you to engage with the topic. But it’s important that you don’t feel wedded to your guide and allow the conversation to flow naturally. Remember, it's just that - a guide.

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Published by Katie Hughes December 12, 2019
Katie Hughes