What Is a Market Research Focus Group?

Image shows four people in a focus group and one moderator. Text reads: "The keys to successful focus groups: participants contribute equally; the moderator's questions mimic a natural exchange; participants feel comfortable to interact openly"

Image by Maddy Price © The Balance 2019

A focus group is a gathering of deliberately selected people who participate in a facilitated discussion intended to elicit consumer perceptions about a particular topic or area of interest. These discussions should be held in an environment that is non-threatening and receptive. Unlike interviews, which usually occur with an individual, a focus group allows members to interact and influence each other during the discussion and consideration of ideas.

Advantages of Focus Groups

Focus group methods permit alternative ways of obtaining information from consumers without using a survey. Survey instruments tend to be viewed as scientific, particularly when they produce quantitative data. Surveys may be overused by those who lack confidence in other market research strategies.

Focus groups have a distinct advantage over other types of market research:

  • They are flexible by design.
  • They capitalize on the ability of decision-makers to talk to their customers directly.
  • They give actionable insight into customers knowledge of their brands, products, or services.
  • A good moderator who prepares well for a focus group will act as a proxy for the decision makers.

Focus groups are conducted as part of a series in which the participants vary but the area of interest is consistant. Conducting several focus groups can help smooth any irregular group differences. For instance, when a particular group simply does not warm to the topic or to the moderator. In addition, environmental variables that may or may not be apparent to the market researcher can impact the focus group outcomes. Ensuring that several focus groups are conducted is a straightforward way to gather accurate data.

The purpose of a focus group is not to arrive at a consensus, some level of agreement, or to decide what to do about something. Focus groups are designed to identify the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts of consumers about a particular product, service, or solution. Focus groups are beneficial because they utilize qualitative data collection methods. Just as in the dynamics of real life, the participants are able to interact, influence, and be influenced.

Successful Focus Groups

The quality of a focus group's outcomes depends on the discussion. If focus group participants become annoyed or intimidated by an upscale apparatus (like a TV, fancy coffee machine, or strange wall art) they may become distracted from the task at hand. Exploring their deep feelings, perceptions, and decisions about the research topic is easier if participants are in a clean—even bland—environment.

Participants must be comfortable enough to interact openly. The line of questioning used in focus groups, known as the questioning route, the interview guide, or the protocol, is predetermined and follows a logical sequence intended to mimic a natural exchange. Moderators avoid abrupt changes of direction or topic, and they are careful to ensure that all participants in a focus group have input and contribute as equally as possible. Focus group members must be able to interpret the context for the discussion and, as much as possible, find it logical and useful.

Focus group research findings are robust. When focus group participants are genuinely engaged in the study and the moderator is sufficiently skillful, the outcome can be clarity about major themes. A micro-analysis of the information that emerges from the study is not as easy to achieve through focus group methods. This points to the appropriate application of focus groups and does not mean that careful use of techniques and protocol should not proceed.

The Changing Nature of Focus Groups

Researchers are using much smaller groups to conduct market research than they have in the past, and with good results. The outcomes when using smaller numbers of participants in focus groups often are deeper and probe the unconscious or unexpressed preferences of consumers.

Some of the modes of analysis used for focus groups are radically different from the transcript-based analysis that was considered to be essential to focus group research in the past.

Participants in focus groups have also become more socially diverse in order to reflect a globalized, interconnected audience. This requires additional awareness and sensitivity to participants so that they feel welcome sharing their true opinions during the focus group.