Focus groups have become one of the most popular ways to gather market research data. As a research technique they are used by marketing managers, product managers, and market researchers. Businesses find them useful for staying close to consumers and their ever-changing attitudes and feelings. Focus groups provide qualitative information from well defined target audiences; the information can be used for decision making and developing marketing strategies and promotional campaigns.
Focus groups are essentially discussion groups. They generate output that tells businesses and other clients who utilize them what their target audience feels or thinks about certain concepts, which are known as test concepts. This type of market research is known as qualitative research. Unlike quantitative research, which provides hard numbers on which to base conclusions, qualitative research provides the kind of information that cannot be put into numbers. Other types of qualitative research techniques include in-depth interviews conducted with one or two individuals and expert panels. These methods are to be contrasted with quantitative techniques, such as behavioral and attitudinal surveys, which generate quantifiable data. Quantitative data can also be generated from different types of advertising studies and product tests that use representative population samples.
As focus groups became more popular in the 1980s and 1990s, they became more widely used for applications outside of their traditional ones. For example, pharmaceutical companies have convened focus groups consisting of medical professionals to test concepts related to new drug products. The legal profession has used focus groups to improve the quality of their cases. Nonprofit organizations have used focus groups to test fund raising campaigns. Focus groups have been used in industrial settings by business-to-business marketers. Companies have set up employee focus groups to learn more about employee motivation.
Traditionally, focus groups have been used to gather qualitative data from target groups of consumers. They are frequently used in new product development to test consumer reaction to new product concepts and prototypes. Focus groups are also used to test communications programs and can provide an indication of how consumers will react to specific advertising messages and other types of marketing communications. Focus groups can generate output that helps advertising and promotion managers position a particular product, service, or institution with respect to their target audience. Reactions to new types of product packaging can also be determined.
Focus groups are also used to discover more about consumer habits and product usage. They can reveal how different products and services are used by consumers. In addition they can be used to find out more about consumer attitudes toward products and services. Quality of service can be evaluated through the use of focus groups. Public relations agencies often use focus groups to gather information about consumer attitudes and perceptions.
Idea generation is another area in which focus groups are useful to businesses. Participants are encouraged to talk about their problems and unfulfilled needs. From this type of focus group new ideas can be generated concerning possible new products and services.
A key factor in determining the success of focus groups is the composition of the group in terms of the participants' age, gender, and product usage. Product usage, or nonusage in some cases, means that participants are selected on the basis of their use, knowledge, attitudes, or feelings about the products, services, or other test concepts that are the subject of the focus group. In selecting participants, the objective is to find individuals who can discuss the topics at hand and provide quality output that meets the specified research objectives.
The most common method of selecting participants for focus groups is from some type of database that contains demographic, psychographic, and lifestyle information about a large number of consumers. Such databases are available from a variety of commercial vendors. A list of desired characteristics is drawn up and matched with the database to select participants for focus groups. These characteristics may include purchase behavior, attitudes, and demographic data such as age and gender. The goal is to select participants who would likely be in the target audience for the products, services, or concepts being tested.
There is no absolute ideal in terms of the number of participants. Different moderators are comfortable with different sizes of focus groups. A full group usually includes from eight to ten participants. Minigroups consist of four to six individuals. Full groups offer several advantages over smaller groups, but in some cases it is not possible to convene a full group.
Full groups of eight to ten participants provide a sufficient amount of output that smaller groups may not be able to offer, especially if one or two individuals either dominate the discussion or tend to be withdrawn and shy. There is usually better interaction, or group dynamics, in full groups. Participants in full groups are not made to feel like experts, as may be the case in minigroups; they participate as average consumers and provide more reliable output.
Groups that include more than ten participants are usually more difficult for moderators to control. Group interaction is also more difficult, and moderators have a harder time stimulating discussion. Similarly, it is more difficult for a moderator to spend time probing one individual when there are too many participants.
Focus groups that are homogeneous in terms of age, gender, and product usage generally work better than mixed groups. When it is desirable to obtain data from different age and gender groups, most experts recommend scheduling a series of focus groups using homogeneous participants. There are several reasons homogeneous groups work better than mixed groups. One is that it is easier to evaluate output from homogeneous groups. It would not be possible in a mixed gender group, for example, to distinguish male and female attitudes toward a certain topic. To do so would require two separate, homogeneous groups, one consisting of males and one of females.
Another reason homogeneous groups work better is that group dynamics tend to become inhibited in mixed gender or age focus groups. In addition, specific topics can be explored in greater depth when there is homogeneity among the participants with regard to usage of or attitudes toward the products being tested.
The most successful focus groups, then, are those that contain approximately eight to ten members who are representative of individuals who would use the product or service being discussed. Ideally they would be of the same gender and age group. If individuals chosen for a focus group do not represent the target audience for the concepts being tested, then the group is likely to provide misleading information.
Moderators play an important role in determining the success of focus groups. Well-trained moderators can provide a great deal of added value in terms of their past experience, skills, and techniques. Poorly trained moderators are likely to fail to generate quality output from their focus groups. In addition to professional, full-time focus group moderators, other types of individuals who serve as focus group moderators include professional researchers, academicians, marketing consultants, psychologists or psychiatrists, and clients themselves.
Focus group moderators serve as discussion leaders. They try to stimulate discussion but say as little as possible. They are not interviewers. They usually work from a guide that provides them with an outlined plan of how the discussion should flow. The guide includes topics to be covered together with probes that can be used to stimulate further discussion. Moderators try to include everyone in the discussion. They allocate available time to make sure the required topics are covered. When the discussion digresses, it is up to the moderator to refocus the group on the topic at hand. Other duties of the moderator, also known as the facilitator, may include recruiting the participants, planning and writing the session guide and list of questions, finding a suitable location, and submitting a report.
When setting up a focus group session, careful attention should be paid to the physical setting where the session or sessions will take place. It is important that the location be one that encourages relaxed participation and informal spontaneous comments. The focus group facility must be of adequate size and have comfortable seating for all of the participants. Living room and conference room settings both provide good settings for focus groups. Public places, such as restaurants and auditoriums, do not.
In selecting a focus group site it is also important to make it geographically convenient for the participants. Locations that are hard to find or located in out of the way places may cause delays and scheduling problems.
The facility should also be relatively soundproof, to minimize outside noises and distractions. While focus group sessions are almost always audiotaped and many are videotaped, clients usually like to observe their focus groups firsthand. The ideal focus group facility would be equipped with a one-way mirror that allows clients to observe without intruding. An alternative viewing arrangement would be to use a remote video hookup that would allow clients to view the proceedings on a video screen. Having clients in the same room as the focus group is the least desirable arrangement.
Once the facility, moderator, and participants have been selected, typical focus group sessions begin with an introduction. During the introductory part of the session the moderator welcomes the participants, informs them of what will take place during the session, and generally sets the stage for the discussion to follow. Prior to the main discussion there is usually a warm-up phase. The warm-up is designed to make the participants feel at ease. During the warm-up participants generally introduce themselves to the group. General topic discussions, usually related to the specific topics that will be covered later, also form part of the warm-up stage. These general discussions help participants focus their attention. They also provide the moderator with some insight into the different participants and allow the moderator to disguise the specific objectives of the focus group.
Gradually the moderator moves the level of discussion from general topics to more specific ones. The moderator may present different concepts for discussion. These include the test concepts for which the group was convened. The moderator may choose to use props or external stimuli to focus the group's attention. Typical props include product samples, actual or concept ads, concept statements that participants read together, photographs, and television commercials.
Once all of the test concepts have been discussed and evaluated by the group, the moderator moves the discussion into a wrap-up phase. During this phase the best concepts are identified and their strengths and weaknesses discussed. Participants may be asked to write down their reactions to what they have seen and discussed. During this final phase any outstanding issues that were omitted are covered.
When all of the substantive discussions have been completed, the moderator closes the session by thanking the participants and giving them any final instructions. Participants should leave with a positive feeling about the experience and the client, if the client has been identified. After the participants have left, it is standard practice for the moderator and the client observers to have a postgroup discussion.
Following the conclusion of the focus group or series of focus group sessions, the moderator may prepare a report for the client. The report generally provides a written summary of the results of the session or sessions as interpreted by the moderator. Focus group reports may be summary in nature or more detailed. In some cases the client may not require a written report.
Focus groups have become a widely used market research tool because of the advantages they offer. With respect to other qualitative-research methods, such as in-depth interviews with one or two individuals at a time, focus groups are much faster and more cost-effective. It takes much less time to generate output from focus groups than from one-to one interviews. Focus groups also allow clients to participate by viewing the discussions, something that is usually not possible with in-depth interviews.
The group dynamics of focus group discussions also provide many benefits. The synergy, or combined effect, of group interactions results in more output than would be obtained individually. Group discussions often snowball, or build on previous statements, to reach a level of output that does not occur individually. Participants are likely to be more spontaneous in focus groups than in one-to-one interviews, and their informal comments may produce unexpected results.
[ David P. Bianco ]
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