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Best Practices / Marketing Research / Qualitative Marketing Research
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Focus Group Principles
By Holly Edmunds
Holly Edmunds is Managing Partner of RS Consulting USA, LLC. Prior to joining the RS team, Ms. Edmunds was Market Research Manager for Xerox Engineering Systems and as Primary Research Specialist for Hewlett-Packard.
  1. The Basics

What is a focus group?

Focus groups are a form of qualitative research; a loosely structured means of obtaining opinions related to a specific topic. Groups usually consist of eight to ten people recruited and brought together based on pre-specified qualifications.

Focus groups are typically conducted in-person at a research facility, but more recently telefocus groups (via telephone conferencing) and Internet focus groups have become more popular. Generally two or more focus groups are conducted as part of a given study in order to provide comparisons between groups for greater detail in the research analysis.

When to Use Focus Groups

There are a wide variety of uses for focus groups. The most common uses are:

  • Testing advertising copy or marketing promotions
  • Positioning products or services
  • Testing new concepts
  • Testing usability of a product

Focus groups also can be used to generate ideas in a group brainstorming session. They are frequently utilized in developing questionnaires. By getting feedback in advance from people representative of those you hope to target with a survey, you can better word your questions and design clearer explanations of your concepts.

When to Avoid Focus Groups

While there are many instances where focus group research is helpful, there are equally as many situations where you should not use this methodology. Above all, it is important to remember that focus groups should not be used to make a final decision.

Results of focus groups are not statistically valid and should be used more as a thermometer to test the temperature of the market rather than as a ruler to provide precise measurements.
Likewise, the following represent good examples of when to avoid using focus groups:

  • When you need a numerical response to questions like “what percentage…?” or “how many…?”
    Focus groups do not provide quantitative results.
  • When you need to explore issues that are very personal or sensitive in nature.
    People are not really comfortable discussing personal topics in a group situation.
  • When you want to set prices for your products or your services.
    Again, these results are not quantitative in nature hence it is not advisable to make final pricing decisions based on small group responses.
  • When you cannot afford a survey.
    Focus groups are not a replacement for a survey. If what you really need are statistically valid results, consider a shorter survey or slightly reduced sample size, but do not rely on qualitative to give you the detail you require.
  • When you want to validate internal decisions that cannot (or will not) be changed based on the results of the focus groups.
    If you will not be able to incorporate the results of the focus groups into product development, advertising design, etc., then there is no sense in conducting the groups in the first place.

Finally, before you opt to conduct focus groups, be certain that your audience (those people who will review and use the results of the study) are completely familiar with the type of results focus groups produce. If they expect to receive detailed graphs and tables, it may be very difficult to explain how to use qualitative data that will seem more vague in comparison.

Leave the Focus Group to the Professionals

At first glance, it seems quite simple to recruit people, gather them in a room and get the conversation rolling. While this may be less costly, if the groups are not conducted correctly there may ultimately be costs involved with incorrect interpretation of the discussion.

Secondly, a professional moderator runs a focus group. The moderator's job is directing the conversation and ensuring that all respondents voice their opinion. Experienced moderators spent years honing their skills – a charming conversationalist is no substitute for a professional.

Furthermore, consider the bias involved with moderating your own focus groups. How will you react in a focus group situation if the participants don’t like the concepts? Will you probe for more details on their concerns or will you either (a) try to sell them on the concepts, (b) defend the concepts or (c) quickly try to steer them on to the next topic?

Using an outside vendor will provide the necessary element of objectivity into your study. Certainly, your views will be addressed in the groups, but the moderator is not as emotionally attached to your advertisements, products, etc., as someone internally is likely to be!

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2001, Inc. Contents used by permission of the author
Table of Contents
1. The Basics
2. The Client's Role
3. The Moderator's Role
4. The Vendor's Role
5. Special Situations
6. Focus Group Evaluation

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