Everything you need to know about focus groups.

Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

Focus groups are a market research method where a small, diverse group of participants are brought together to discuss a specific topic or product. Focus groups gather qualitative data and gain insights into consumer attitudes, opinions, and behaviors.

Focus groups are also known by other terms such as “group interview” or “group discussion,” and they are used in various fields such as market research, sociology, psychology, political science, and many others.

Brands can benefit from conducting focus groups if they want to gain a deeper understanding of their target market and gather data about consumer attitudes and behaviors.

The advantages of focus group research include the ability to gain in-depth insights into consumer attitudes and behaviors, as well as the ability to observe nonverbal communication and group dynamics. For this reason, focus groups are often better than market research surveys when the research goals require in-depth insights into consumer attitudes and behaviors.

The disadvantages of focus groups include the potential for bias and the small sample size.

The origins of focus groups in research

The history of focus groups dates back to the 1940s, when they were first used to gather information about consumer attitudes toward new products. Over the years, the application of focus groups has expanded to include a variety of research topics, such as advertising and media research, public policy, and healthcare research.

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The idea behind focus groups was developed by Paul Lazarsfeld, a director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, along with his colleague and sociologist Robert K. Merton. Merton is considered the “father of focus groups.” The term “Focus group” was coined by Merton to describe the group as a whole but also to emphasize the central theme or topic the group is discussing. 

The first focus group is believed to have been conducted to test reactions to anti-Nazi radio broadcasts on behalf of the Office of War. At the time, the US public was not eager to go to war, so a focus group was used where participants listened to radio broadcasts and pressed buttons that indicated their “like” or “dislike.”

The mechanics of running focus groups

When choosing focus groups as part of your market research, it is essential to consider the target market, the research goals, and the resources available. 

It is essential to have well-designed discussion guides to ensure a focus group session is worthwhile and a trained moderator can keep the discussion on track and gather valuable data.

A discussion guide is a set of questions or prompts that a moderator uses during a focus group to guide the discussion and explore the research question. The discussion guide ensures that the focus group stays on topic and covers all relevant areas of interest. It’s a roadmap for the focus group that keeps the discussion organized and structured.

Also, read “The importance and types of Research Design” here.

A discussion guide typically includes the following:

  • Introduction: A brief overview of the purpose of the focus group and the research question
  • Objectives: A list of specific objectives or goals for the focus group discussion
  • Open-ended Questions: A set of open-ended questions that encourage participants to share their thoughts and opinions. These are the main questions that the moderator will ask during the focus group.
  • Probes: Additional questions or prompts that the moderator can use to explore a topic in more depth or to clarify a participant’s response.
  • Group activities: Activities or exercises that the moderator can use to encourage participation and generate new ideas.
  • Closing Discussion: A set of questions or prompts that the moderator can use to summarize the main points discussed during the focus group and to encourage participants to share any final thoughts or comments.

A typical focus group includes 6 to 10 participants and takes place in a moderated discussion led by a trained facilitator. The participants are selected to be representative of the target market for the product or service being studied. A typical focus group session lasts between 1 and 2 hours, and participants are usually compensated for their time with cash or a gift card.

Brands ensure confidentiality in a focus group session by signing non-disclosure agreements with the participants and keeping the discussion private.

When conducting focus groups, it is generally recommended to group participants by demographics such as age, income, education, gender, and other relevant characteristics important to the research. This is because different demographic groups may have different attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to the topic. By grouping participants by demographics, researchers can gain a more detailed understanding of how different segments of the population feel about a particular product or service.

However, in some cases, it may be more appropriate to group participants by other criteria, such as their level of experience with the product or service being studied. Additionally, if the research is focused on a specific demographic group, it may not be necessary to group participants by other demographic characteristics.

Ultimately, deciding how to group participants should be based on the specific research question and the study’s goals. The researcher should consider what demographic information is essential to the research and what will yield the most meaningful results.

Focus groups typically take place in a focus group facility or a rented room. A professional focus group facility is designed to provide a comfortable and welcoming environment for participants while also being equipped with the necessary technology and equipment to conduct the focus group. 

Some characteristics of a professional focus group facility include:

  • Privacy: The facility should provide a high level of privacy for participants, with soundproofing and other measures to ensure that outsiders cannot overhear the discussion.
  • Comfort: The facility should be comfortable for participants, with comfortable seating and appropriate lighting.
  • Technology: The facility should have the necessary technology to conduct the focus group, such as audio and video recording equipment and a computer and projector for presentations.
  • Observation Room: The facility will often include an observation room, where researchers and clients can observe the focus group discussion through one-way mirrors or live streaming.
  • Breakout Rooms: In some cases, the facility may have breakout rooms or small rooms for individual interviews or small group discussions.
  • Control Room: The facility will have a control room or an area where the researchers can manage and monitor the audio and video recording equipment and where the data can be analyzed.
  • Reception Area: A professional focus group facility should have a reception area where participants can sign in, receive instructions and wait for the focus group to start.
  • Catering: In some cases, the facility may provide refreshments and food, which can help to create a more relaxed and comfortable environment for participants.

A typical focus group agenda can include the following:

  1. Introduction: The moderator introduces themselves and the purpose of the focus group. Participants are welcomed and given an overview of the agenda for the session.
  2. Icebreaker: The moderator may start with an icebreaker to help participants relax and get to know each other. This can be a simple activity or game that helps to break the ice and create a comfortable and welcoming environment.
  3. Background information: The moderator may ask participants to provide background information such as their occupation, age, and other relevant demographic information.
  4. Discussion topics: The moderator will then introduce the main discussion topics, which will be based on the research question and objectives. The moderator will ask open-ended questions to encourage participants to share their thoughts and opinions.
  5. Group activities: The moderator may also use group activities, such as brainstorming, to encourage participation and generate new ideas.
  6. Break: Depending on the length of the focus group, the moderator may take a break to allow participants to rest and refresh.
  7. Closing discussion: The moderator will summarize the main points discussed during the focus group and ask participants if they have any final thoughts or comments.
  8. Conclusion: The moderator will thank the participants for their time and provide them with any necessary information regarding compensation or follow-up.

The agenda should be tailored to the focus group’s research question, objectives, and duration. It can also include other activities, such as product testing or a mock-up of a campaign or product presentation.

Some typical questions that get asked in a focus group session include: “What are your thoughts on this product/service?”, “What are the main reasons you would or wouldn’t buy this product/service?” and “How does this product/service compare to similar products/services on the market?”.

The role of a focus group moderator

The moderator is vital in ensuring the focus group session is well-managed. The moderator’s responsibilities include:

  • Keeping the discussion on the topic.
  • Encouraging participation from all group members.
  • Ensuring the discussion stays respectful.

Education, skills, and experience required for a focus group moderator can vary depending on the type of research conducted and the specific industry. A bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as marketing, sociology, or psychology, is often preferred. Relevant experience in market research or a related field is also beneficial. Additionally, a moderator should understand research methodology and data analysis well.

Above all, a focus group moderator needs strong communication and interpersonal skills and the ability to lead a group discussion and keep the conversation on the topic. 

It is advised to use an experienced focus group moderator. Brands can find focus group moderators by searching for market research firms, like Kadence International, that specialize in focus groups or by searching for independent moderators on professional networking websites.

What are the benefits of focus group research?

Focus groups have several positives when used as a method of market research. Some of the main advantages include:

  • Rich, detailed data: Focus groups provide qualitative data that can be rich and detailed, allowing researchers to gain a deep understanding of consumer attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
  • Group dynamics: The group setting of focus groups allows participants to discuss and share their thoughts and opinions, which can lead to new insights and perspectives that might not be apparent from individual interviews.
  • Flexibility: Focus groups can be used to explore a wide range of topics, from product development to advertising and marketing strategies. They can also be modified to fit the specific needs of a research project.
  • Cost-effective: While conducting focus groups can be relatively expensive, it is considered cost-effective compared to other qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews.
  • Interaction: Focus groups provide a way for participants to interact with each other, making the experience more engaging and interesting. It can also help the researcher understand how participants interact with each other and the topic.
  • Observation: The researcher can observe participants’ nonverbal cues and body language, which can be useful in interpreting their responses.
  • Realistic: Focus groups can be used to simulate real-life situations, such as testing a new product in a home-like setting, which can provide valuable insights into how consumers would use the product in the real world.

What are the drawbacks of focus groups?

There are some potential negatives to conducting focus groups. Some of the main drawbacks include:

  • Group dynamics: Focus groups rely on group dynamics to generate discussion and insights. However, group dynamics can also lead to social loafing, where some participants may contribute less to the discussion or may be influenced by the opinions of others.
  • Selection bias: The participants in a focus group are self-selected and may not represent the population being studied. This can lead to biased or misleading results.
  • Cost: Conducting focus groups can be relatively expensive due to the costs of recruiting participants, renting a facility, and compensating participants for their time.
  • Time-consuming: Focus groups can be time-consuming to conduct, especially if multiple groups are needed to achieve a representative sample.
  • Limited scope: Focus groups provide qualitative data, which can be rich and detailed, but it’s a small sample size of participants. It may not be representative of the entire population.
  • Influence of the Moderator: The Moderator has a big influence on the group dynamics, and their tone, attitude, and questions can lead the group to provide certain answers.

To mitigate these potential negatives, it’s crucial to conduct focus groups as part of a more extensive research study and to carefully consider the recruitment, moderation, and data analysis methods to ensure the results are reliable and valid.

What can go wrong in a focus group?

During a focus group, several things can go wrong that can affect the quality of the data collected and the overall success of the focus group. Some examples of what can go wrong include:

  • Lack of participation: Some participants may be unwilling or unable to participate in the discussion, leading to a lack of data or an unbalanced group dynamic.
  • Dominant participants: Some participants may dominate the discussion, preventing other participants from expressing their opinions or leading the discussion in a direction that is irrelevant to the research question.
  • Lack of focus: The discussion may stray off-topic or become bogged down in irrelevant details, making it difficult to gather meaningful data.
  • Technical issues: The recording equipment may malfunction, or the facility may not be suitable for the focus group, which can affect the data quality.
  • Boredom: Participants may become disengaged or bored if the discussion is too long or not engaging enough, which can also affect the quality of the data collected.
  • Ethical concerns: Participants may feel uncomfortable sharing certain information or may not be aware of their rights as research participants, which can affect the data quality.
  • Moderator bias: The moderator may be biased towards certain participants or opinions, leading to an unbalanced discussion and invalid data.

“Group thinking” refers to a phenomenon in which focus group members conform to the opinions of the majority rather than expressing their own opinions. To avoid group thinking in focus groups, several strategies can be employed:

  • Encourage dissenting opinions: The moderator should actively encourage participants to express dissenting opinions and not allow one or two participants to dominate the discussion.
  • Use open-ended questions: Open-ended questions allow participants to express their thoughts and opinions freely rather than leading them to a specific answer.
  • Use a neutral moderator: The moderator should be neutral and not show bias towards any particular participant or opinion.
  • Use a variety of participants: A diverse group with different backgrounds, experiences, and opinions can help avoid group thinking.
  • Break the Group: When the discussion is too focused on a specific topic, the moderator can break the group into smaller groups and give different tasks to each one. This way, the group dynamics will change, and new perspectives will be brought to the discussion.

It’s important to note that the goal is not to eliminate group thinking entirely but to minimize its impact on the discussion and the data collected during the focus group. By combining these strategies, focus group moderators can increase the likelihood of getting a more diverse set of opinions and avoid a single perspective dominating the discussion.

Which is better – focus groups or surveys?

On the other hand, a qualitative survey can be conducted online or by phone, allowing a larger sample size in a shorter period of time. The survey may be less expensive than focus groups and can be conducted with a diverse group of participants.

In terms of which is better, it depends on the specific research question and the study’s goals. Both focus groups and qualitative surveys have their strengths and weaknesses, and the best method to use will depend on the research question, budget, and resources available.

Focus groups are more suitable for in-depth exploration of a specific topic and to gain an understanding of the group dynamics and nonverbal cues. 

Qualitative surveys are more appropriate for a broader research question and to reach a larger sample size in a shorter period.

Both methods can be complementary and can be used together in a mixed-methods approach to gain a more comprehensive understanding of a research question.

Market research companies can help brands with focus groups by providing recruitment services, moderating the discussion, and analyzing the data. If you would like to know if focus groups will help answer your research question, please submit a research brief, and one of our offices will be in touch.