Eggs with smiley faces drawn on to represent focus groups as a research method

Why conduct focus groups as a research method?

What is a focus group research method?

Focus groups are one of the most effective and most frequently used research methods for collecting qualitative data about customer attitudes and perceptions. Focus groups are informal loosely- structured customer interviews with groups of roughly 8 to 12 participants. A trained moderator asks a group to focus on a particular topic and facilitates an open-ended, free-flowing discussion regarding an existing or proposed service offering.

Who are your Customers?

What kinds of people are your customers? How do they talk? How do they think? How do they see themselves? How do they live? How do they feel about your product? How should you talk to them? What do they want and need? Finding the answers to questions like these is the primary reason why focus groups and in-depth interviews are used.

When companies start to ask these questions, they have varying degrees of knowledge. In some cases, there is a total information vacuum, and qualitative research is the first step in learning about the customers. In other cases, they already have a demographic profile of their customers, for instance, information about age, income, geographic area, occupation, and children in the home. This information is both crucial and incomplete — it's not alive or dynamic. What clients are missing is their customers' mindsets, what they feel, what motivates them, how they see themselves. The company may not even know why its customers buy the product or service, or why non-customers are avoiding it. Without answers, client companies don't know how to communicate with their markets or how to design products for them.

Qualitative versus Quantitative

These observations often cannot easily be formalized and packaged into quantitative studies. Qualitative research allows us to see in consumers what they themselves may not be aware of and, therefore, what they cannot report in straightforward questioning. In addition, what is important and relevant in one category (how people dress or their energy level, for instance) may be meaningless in another.

We have to be open and receptive while observing respondents: What stands out about these people? What is the dominant feeling and impression they leave behind? The answer is to consider what comes out of qualitative research as hypothesis, not absolute fact. The new picture of the consumer is a possibility to consider and to explore further through quantitative studies with larger samples and structured questionnaires.

The Benefits 

Focus group research methods are an excellent method for gathering in-depth information about customer attitudes and opinions regarding the use of a company’s product or service. The weakness of conducting focus groups is that they use a statistically small sample size population and the attitudes and opinions expressed by a single or a few focus groups may not be representative of the population as a whole. Although focus groups may only represent a statistically small sample size of a population they offer these additional benefits:

  • Insights that go beyond a list of demographics, attitudes, and behavior.
  • Excellent for gathering information regarding customer attitudes and opinions and learning exactly how internal and external customers use your work, products and services
  • Provide fast turnaround time for acquiring knowledge
  • Relatively inexpensive to conduct and can generate a great deal of customer information
  • Can uncover unsuspected problems and solutions
  • Useful when information is needed but cannot be collected adequately with questionnaires, interviews, or quantitative methods 


When should I conduct a focus group?

Identifying Your Market

The most successful products and services serve a market in need. But there are times when your company is not completely clear on what that market actually is. Focus groups allow you to identify your target market, providing you with much-needed information related to both product development and marketing.

This is why so many companies choose to use focus groups early on. While the qualitative data gathered from these efforts is not adequate to inform decision making from the beginning to the end of a project, it is excellent for helping orient the initial trajectory. Qualitative data is useful for making strategic decisions, due to the bird's eye view it provides. Once it is time to make more specific decisions at a tactical level, the benefits of quantitative data become more pronounced.

New Product Development

New product development is an ongoing challenge for any company. While success in this area can yield a new surge of profitability, achieving that success can sometimes feel like grasping around in the dark without a light. Focus groups, and the qualitative data they provide, can help guide the way.

You can use focus groups in a variety of areas in the new product development state, including concept testing, packaging testing, product usage tests and test market research. In each of these areas, focus groups give you the ability to test the waters before you fully commit to an idea. This can lead to considerable cost savings, and the avoidance of seemingly promising but ultimately disastrous product development choices.

Perfection of a new product before it goes to market should always include the ample use of quantitative data, but before you invest in the gathering of this data, you can use relatively inexpensive focus groups to determine where that money can best be spent. The speed and affordability of focus groups makes them an obvious front line solution for new product development.

Ad Campaign Development

An advertising campaign is an investment in the future of your company and your brand. It takes considerable resources and talent to see an effective campaign through, which is why early exploration through focus groups is recommended. Before you take your company down a certain path, it is always worthwhile to know if that path is the right one.

Advertising campaigns are built around a message, but the message developed in a boardroom is not necessarily a message that will resonate with the public or your target audience. This is one area where the value of focus groups stands out – testing marketing messages.

When a focus group is gathered and the study is conducted, those conducting the study can gather a great deal of information from the group, including verbal responses, body language and group interactions. When potential marketing messages are delivered to the group, researchers can record indicators in all of these areas. This can quickly help you determine if the message is effective. If you do not get the reactions you want, you can move on to something else, instead of wasting months on an ad campaign that was ill-conceived or ineffective.

The qualitative data gathered by focus groups can prove invaluable to your company. This is why they remain popular across a variety of industries and disciplines. They allow for the gathering of attitudes and perceptions from a specific group of people – people that you need to reach if you are to be successful in your business endeavours.

If you're looking for more information on focus groups, or improving your current research project download our top 10 tips to focus groups:


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