The Value of Focus Groups
Understanding your audience is essential to communicating with them effectively. Focus groups are a great method for getting to know your target. However, this technique has its limitations when not executed properly, and it is important to know what the limitations and the advantages are.
What is a Focus Group?
A focus group is a small collection of people brought together for the purpose of determining their perceptions and opinions, proposing ideas or recommending courses of action. An open discussion is planned and guided by a focus group moderator who attempts to gain the insight of each individual. Focus groups are a form of qualitative rather than quantitative research. Qualitative research aims to discover the reasons behind certain behaviors. It determines the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of decision-making.
Focus group discussions are a respected technique that produce
significant data in a required time frame. They can be used
to validate results that the people authorizing the focus
group have already researched. Sometimes, ad
agencies will bring a few ideas into a focus group and inform
the client of which one scored highest. One main function
of focus groups is simply to confirm a seller’s already
existing research. However, when conducting preliminary
research, it is detrimental to run a focus group with a
preconceived idea of what the results will be. Use it to
guide your continuing research, not to verify preconceived
There are two very effective ways to conduct focus groups.
(1) The group can act as a precursor to other forms of research.
Focus groups can uncover issues that a survey could measure
later on. In the Harvard Management Communication Letter,
Kirsten Sandberg states, “Use focus groups not to validate hunches, but to guide the validation process.” (2) The focus group can be conducted following other kinds of research to help interpret their results. Sandberg offers a contrary but complimentary view by asserting, “Use
focus groups not to draw conclusions, but to understand
the conclusions drawn.”
Certain things can be done to maximize the effectiveness of a focus group. The moderator should request that people build upon what others have said, rather than simply concur with them. The discussion should allow for spontaneity as much as possible. It should take place in a comfortable setting and chosen participants should have an approachable appearance that does not communicate professional or social standing. Some focus groups consist of only four or five people, thus allowing time to delve down into more meaningful information. A group of this size is referred to as a mini focus group.
There are many benefits in conducting focus groups, but there are a few disadvantages
to consider. Some evidence suggests that focus group members frequently lie.
Occasionally, there is a gap between what customers say in focus groups and what
they actually do in the marketplace. The reason for this is participants tell
the leader of the focus group what they think they want to hear, rather than
their honest opinions. There is not enough time to establish trust between the
moderator and the participant. Consequently, when controversial topics come up,
people often feel the need to give politically correct responses even if their
actual views are quite different. By conducting focus groups with only a few
people, more trust can be established and this problem can be lessened.
Some believe that focus groups are not a good representation of the target audience.
One or two participants seem to dominate the group and therefore guide the responses.
It is imperative that groupthink does not emerge. Groupthink is the lack of individuality
and creativity that can sometimes occur in group interactions. These obstacles
can be overcome with an experienced group moderator who understands how to gain
the most from participants.
It is believed that many of the feelings that influence consumer or employee
behavior exist in the unconscious mind. In the short time of a focus group discussion,
it is very difficult to discover one person’s unconscious thoughts. However,
the thoughts and feelings of a participant that are readily accessible can often
reveal valuable information.
One great function of focus groups is their ability to disaster check. A disaster check is conducted to uncover any glaring, overlooked mistakes in an advertisement, communication or packaging. Before a new product is introduced to the market, it should be checked to see that its packaging does not look too much like an existing product. It is also important to make sure that its appearance does not produce unfavorable views in the participant. A disaster check can be conducted for an early stage of an advertisement. This makes sure the consumers understand the intended message, and can save money by not developing an ad that did not accomplish its objectives.
Types of Focus Groups
Traditional focus groups consist of a small group of individuals who have been screened to verify they are part of the target market. A moderator generates the discussion and client representatives sometimes watch from behind a one-way mirror. Other types of focus groups include:
Two-way – one group watches another and then discusses the interactions and conclusions that they observed
Respondent Moderator – one or more participants are asked to be the moderator for a short time
Dual Moderator – two moderators run the discussion, one making sure it progresses smoothly and the other making sure all the topics are dealt with
Dueling Moderator – the two moderators purposely take opposite sides on an issue while in the discussion
Mini Focus Group – groups are comprised of four or five members rather than eight to twelve
Client Participant – client representatives participate, either secretly or openly
Online Focus Groups
The Internet has allowed for focus groups to be conducted online. The groups consist of eight to twelve people and a moderator still generates the discussion. Conducting this type of research is very beneficial in many ways. Travel expenses, which can be costly and tedious, are eliminated. Clients can often observe and talk among each other and with the moderator as the discussion goes on. This allows questions to be added during the dialogue in order to spontaneously probe a response. Online focus groups are often less time-consuming because participants are recruited from a panel of members who match the research conditions.
Telephone Focus Groups
When traditional group interaction is desired with people who cannot easily be brought together, telephone focus groups are a great option. There are some advantages to conducting these groups over the phone. According to George Silverman, “People get extremely emotional and personal on the phone, since the anonymity, lack of visual element and naturalness of talking on the phone creates a great deal of psychological safety.” People generally believe it is harder to sit on a phone without talking than it is to sit at a computer screen without typing. There are also the arguments that teenagers are more comfortable on the phone than in person, and that this is the easiest way for the elderly to participate. It is easier for the moderator to control dominant participants over the telephone, and if needed, dominators can even be secretly disconnected. In telephone focus groups, people tend to participate more because it seems that the moderator is speaking directly to them.
Surveying people using products in their natural surroundings is extremely beneficial to truly understanding the audience. Focus groups could never replace actually viewing people in the marketplace. Getting to know your customers through authentic conversations is also a great method in gaining valuable information.
In the end, the advantages of focus groups greatly outweigh the drawbacks. They can be used either to begin and guide your research, or to confirm research already executed. This form of qualitative research is greatly beneficial to understanding your target audience, as long as it is performed correctly. All qualitative research techniques can give you special insight into the minds of customers, employees and the target demographic.