Focus groups are a dynamic research process used to collect qualitative data from customers or target markets. Generally, between six and ten people are brought together with a moderator to discuss their attitudes and opinions about a product, service, packaging, campaign or idea.

Focus groups can be held online or using teleconferencing software, but are more commonly held in person, and often in a room with a one-way mirror so that clients can observe the proceedings.

Why are focus groups effective?

Due to their open, free-flowing nature, focus groups are an excellent way of developing an understanding of what customers (or other target groups) think, and what their attitudes are towards a variety of topics and issues. Moderators can show stimuli to the participants – such as new products, new packaging or advertising ideas – and gain real insight into their attitudes from their first-hand spontaneous reactions.

Moderators can also leverage the dynamics of the group to discuss topics in great depth, and hone in on the views of each participant. This along with the ability to change questions based on the responses of the group, is the most valuable part of the process.

Focus groups are useful when …

  • Little is know about the subject. Conducting focus groups can help understand market needs and requirements, or identify areas to develop via further research.
  • There are multiple topics to explore. Focus group queries are open-ended and interactive so a number of variables can be explored at the same time.  The group can also initiate discussion about new ideas not previously identified.
  • A group dynamic would stimulate a better response, as respondents often build on each other’s comments and reach an agreement on issues between themselves. There is a lot that can be learnt from the banter between group members, and also the ‘unspoken’ language used as a reaction to ideas, such as gestures, facial expressions or even silence, which can be analysed by observers.
  • An initial reaction is required to a subject, as seeing and hearing what a consumer really thinks is a very powerful research tool. Additionally as focus groups are often videotaped, this allows each reaction to be reviewed and analysed many times.
  • Quick feedback is required. Focus groups enable the results to be seen instantly by observers.
  • There is a lack of direction for subsequent quantitative research. Focus groups help define the important issues and can reveal topics that should be looked into further, often revealing jargon that will help future respondents understand what is being asked, reducing the potential for confusion

Focus groups are not suitable for …

  •  Deciding major marketing or budgetary spend as the sample size is usually too small to offer anything more than a direction on which to base further research. Focus groups provide only qualitative data which lacks statistical accuracy and quantitative research is required to substantiate any major business decisions.
  • Repetitive research, as duplicating prior focus groups will very often elicit the same results. Instead use the results of the initial focus group to pull out a number of issues to investigate further via qualitative research, such as online, telephone, exit interviews, etc.   These methodologies are better for tracking and comparing over time.
  • Behavioural research. Focus groups only highlight what the respondents ‘say they do’ not what they ‘actually do’.  Instead use observational methodologies such as field work, heat mapping, eye-tracking and ethnographic studies.

Selecting Participants for focus groups

The group needs to be large enough to generate a rich discussion, but not so large that the views of some participants are left out. Between six and ten people is widely considered to be the ideal number, although some believe that mini groups of between three and six people will provide for greater in-depth discussion.

In an ideal situation, the participants will be comfortable around one another but will not know each other. It’s also important to consider the homogeneity of each focus group. This levels the playing field and reduces inhibitions.

The average focus group project in the UK consists of four to six groups, but this varies for each project depending on budget and how many different demographics need to be represented in the sample. It takes at least two groups in order to produce valid results, but once a point of saturation is reached – when you’re not hearing anything new – an optimum number of groups have been used.

It may be necessary to use an incentive to attract participants, but they can be selected in a number of way; randomly, voluntarily or through nomination.

Structuring the focus group

Focus groups are structured around a set of carefully predetermined questions – usually no more that ten – and the discussion should be led by a skilled moderator who nurtures disclosure in an open and spontaneous format. The moderator’s goal is to generate a maximum number of ideas and opinions from as many different people.

The discussion should take anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes – beyond that most groups are not productive.  It can be a good idea to open with an ice-breaker question to increase comfort levels.

The moderator has a responsibility to cover all prepared questions and to get all participants to fully explain their answers within the allotted time. It’s also important that they remain neutral, refraining from nodding, raising eyebrows, agreeing or disagreeing with any answers.

Analysing the results

As the research process is qualitative, the results will be in the form of text, usually transcribed from an audio or video file. This can then be put into a report comprising of the main issues raised with illustrative quotes, plus any major findings and a conclusion.

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