How Focus Groups Work


Marketers bring groups together for input.
Marketers bring groups together for input.
© Photographer: Marc Dietrich | Agency: Dreamstime

How does a fast-food restaurant choose the best wrapper for a hamburger? What do retailers do to find out how customers feel about shopping in their store? How can politicians be sure about people's views on their candidacy and issues? Why do newspapers choose the type size, store placement and images they do? These companies don't just guess how their customers feel. They use focus groups.

A focus group is a targeted group of consumers who are brought together for an in-depth discussion on a certain topic. Businesses and organizations rely on focus groups to obtain feedback on their products and services. Focus groups can be particularly useful in:

  • Understanding how consumers view your brand
  • Understanding how consumers in a particular category think
  • Providing input on advertising campaigns
  • Exploring the purchasing habits of customers
  • Generating ideas on how to solve a problem or fill a need in a product category
  • Assessing employees' attitudes about their companies

In this article, we'll look at how focus groups are conducted, including the limitations and advantages of focus group research. We'll also see how some marketing executives are moving from traditional focus groups to an online setting.

Unlike surveys or polls that produce quantitative, number-driven data, focus groups provide more in-depth, qualitative insights into a topic and collect a range of information. Focus groups typically include six to 12 people, and participants receive anywhere from $25 to $200 to reimburse them for their time and travel expenses. Group members are selected based on certain characteristics or demographic information, such as age, race, income and usage of the product. Companies give screening questionnaires to ensure they select the target audience.

Moderators lead the groups and try to stimulate discussion without saying too much about what they want to hear. The moderator keeps the participants focused on the topic, involves all the participants and encourages group members to react to each other's comments.

Moderators work from a guide with an outlined discussion plan. The sessions typically last from 90 minutes to two hours. The number of focus groups varies, depending on the topic. Some only hold a handful, while others could have 20 or more. The goal is the amass opinions to identify the trends.­

The format of focus groups remains similar throughout the industry.

  1. The moderator starts by introducing attendees to make them feel at ease.
  2. The moderator next presents the topics to be addressed during the session.
  3. Then the moderator introduces topics that are more specific and may introduce props such as product samples or pictures.
  4. To wrap up, the moderator restates key discussion points and may ask participants to write down their conclusion.

During the sessions, clients may observe the group from behind one-way mirrors. Based on the discussion, clients may feed new questions to the moderator. After the session, the moderator gives the client a videotape or audiotape along with an analysis of the focus group results.

In the next section, we'll look at the pros and cons of focus groups.

Advantages and Limitations of Focus Groups

A moderator usually leads the discussion.
A moderator usually leads the discussion.
Bernhard Lang/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Focus groups are rarely used in isolation. Marketing researchers employ a variety of tools, including one-on-one interviews, written surveys and polling to track consumer opinion. Used with all of the above, a focus group is an integral part of gauging public perceptions. However, they do have some obvious benefits:

  • The researcher can interact with the participants, pose follow-up questions or ask questions that probe more deeply.
  • Results can be easier to understand than complicated statistical data.
  • The researcher can get information from non-verbal responses, such as facial expressions or body language.
  • Information is provided more quickly than if people were interviewed separately.­

While all of these are valid points and give more information than a survey or questionnaire, they don't always give as much as is needed to succeed. For example, focus groups in the early 1990s said they liked Crystal Pepsi, a clear drink that tasted like cola. Nevertheless, when the product was introduced across the United States, the public didn't buy it, and Pepsi pulled it from the shelves.

Some of the reasons the company failed in producing a popular product could include some of these disadvantages:

  • The small sample size means the groups might not be a good representation of the larger population.
  • Group discussions can be difficult to steer and control, so time can be lost to irrelevant topics.
  • Respondents can feel peer pressure to give similar answers to the moderator's questions.
  • The moderator's skill in phrasing questions along with the setting can affect responses and skew results.

In the next section, we'll look at specific examples of what organizations have learned from focus groups.

What Companies Have Learned

Marketing teams review information obtained in focus groups.
Marketing teams review information obtained in focus groups.
Thomas Barwick/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Sometimes, focus groups remind companies not to tinker with things that aren't broken. The makers of Jell-O, for example, decided they could save money by eliminating the bags of powder mix in each box, and putting the powder directly in the box, according to Bonnie Goebert in her book "Beyond Listening: Learning the Secret Language of Focus Groups." Goebert moderated focus groups where consumers experimented with the new Jell-O packaging. When consumers tried it, the powder sometimes spilled out of the boxes. Consumers hated it and the company dropped the idea and continued to use the bags inside the boxes.

Social scientists also use focus groups. A study presented at the 1996 International Aids Conference explored how poor Asian American and Pacific Island American teens view HIV prevention [source: Gateway]. Social scientists at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu convened 19 focus groups. The groups included 125 participants, ages 12 to 19, most of whom were Asian or Pacific-Islanders. The moderators led open-ended discussions on topics including HIV, sex, and drug and alcohol use. They found that participants were generally knowledgeable about AIDS, tended to over-estimate risk factors and knew how to protect themselves from AIDS. However, most didn't use condoms consistently.

Online Focus Groups

Marketers are increasingly using the Web to conduct online focus groups.
Marketers are increasingly using the Web to conduct online focus groups.
Duncan McKenzie/Photonica/Getty Images

The latest twist on focus groups is the move to an online format. Using chat and Web conferencing technology, the Internet has made it possible for people from around the world to gather online, eliminating travel costs and other logistical problems associated with traditional face-to-face focus groups.

When online, participants sometimes speak more freely because they're sitting at home and feel anonymous. Online focus groups allow qualitative research to be completed more quickly and at a lower cost.

On the other hand, moderators can't see the body language or facial expressions of online group participants. If a client needs to see a consumer use or taste a product, online focus groups aren't a good choice.

Instead of one-way mirrors, online platforms allow clients to watch the online discussion from a "back room." Clients can "talk" amongst themselves, communicate with the moderator during the session, add new discussion questions, all while sitting in their own offices at their own computers.

Many Web conferencing programs have been developed in the last few years. The programs often bundle tools already common to Internet communication to create an interactive meeting environment. Tools used include:

  • Chat and instant messaging technology
  • Webcams that send streaming video
  • Screen sharing that allows participants to view information from the moderator's desktop

These allow companies to bring focus groups together at a lower cost and in a faster time frame. They can discuss political issues, new product concepts and information about brand identity without needing to leave their office. Using Web conferencing programs, they can record the session for additional analysis or to play again later.

Companies and organizations will always need feedback from their targeted customers so the focus group will continue to be a valuable tool. Web-conferencing advances make it easier to host focus groups, and other technological advances will be sure to follow.

For more information on focus groups and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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