What is a Focus Group and How to Use it in Your Market Research

The term focus group is often used in the market research discipline, as one of the key methods to gather qualitative research. Although not quite an interview, this hands-on approach spurs discussions that have the potential to go into great depth on a subject of study.

As such, using this technique allows businesses to gain critical insights on their target market, along with its segments. These insights help businesses hone in on their marketing, branding and other business processes.

This article explains what is a focus group, along with how to use it and how it ranks against survey research. 

Defining Focus Groups

A focus group is a small group of people selected based on shared characteristics to take part in a discussion for the purposes of market research. Their shared characteristics can be demographical, that is, on the basis of factors such as age range, ethnicity, income, geographic location and other such factors.

Focus groups are composed of a small number of people who take part in a discussion alongside a moderator. This method provides an interactive approach for research participants to share their viewpoints and experiences and for researchers to collect critical data on subjects.

Focus groups are one of the main techniques of qualitative research, which delves into the motivations and reasoning behind attitudes, opinions, sentiments and phenomena. Unlike quantitative data, which works to find the “what” and generate statistics, qualitative data aims at understanding a topic in greater depth.

How Focus Groups Work

Focus groups use a specific methodology to clear away any ambiguity. First off, the small group that makes up a focus group comprises 6-10 people. The participants are pre-recruited, similar to survey panels. They are enlisted based on shared characteristics, which are considered in relation to the subject of the market research.

These characteristics include demographics, psychographics, purchase history, shopping behaviors, and other factors.  

The qualifications that researchers use to recruit participants often bind the participants to a brand’s target market. However, brands can also study people outside their target market to learn how other consumers think and possibly gain them as customers. 

Focus group discussions vary; they can involve feedback on a product, experience or marketing campaign. They can also be used to discuss consumers’ opinions on different matters, such as pop culture, news and politics, especially if they relate to a brand’s industry. 

The discussions are led by a moderator, who prompts questions and talking points. The moderator sets the conversation in motion, along with acting as the researcher. As such, the moderator also notes their observations. 

Typically, these discussions involve using 10-12 questions to draw out responses on key topics that underpin the overall market research campaign. The discussion takes about 30 to 90 minutes.

A focus group environment should be open-minded as participants can have varying and even oppositional opinions. No one should be made to feel threatened or silenced, as every insight matters.

Focus groups are NOT interviews. They are far more interactive, but most importantly, they are not carried out via a one-on-one basis. Instead, they are group-focused activities, in which participants speak with each other instead of solely with an interviewer. 

As such, the participants may influence each other, possibly swaying the minds’ of some members, or reinforcing someone’s opinions.

Since focus groups are small, researchers often conduct several (3-4), across different geographic locations to reap the maximum amount of insights.

The Pros and Cons of Focus Groups

This market research method offers several advantages. These will help propel you to understand your customer base or subject matter much better. They will also help carry your research to completion. But, they have a few drawbacks as well. Researchers and businesses ought to consider both before choosing this research method.

The Pros

  1. Researchers are able to probe deep feelings, perceptions and beliefs of their intended subjects.
  2. When members are engaged, they provide invaluable information that removes any obscurities surrounding a topic.
  3. They generate results fairly quickly, as each session lasts no more than 90 minutes.
  4. Researchers can study body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal signs.
  5. Not all questions need to be premeditated, as they can be produced based on the direction of the conversation.

The Cons

  1. The thoughts of a small group that fits a target market are useful, but are not representative of a larger population.
  2. Recruitment will take a significant portion of the time.
  3. Traversing different geographic areas, if need be, is also time-consuming.
  4. Some members will be dominant while others will contribute less to the discussion.
  5. Certain participants can sway the discussion, even making it veer towards irrelevant territory. 

The Types of Questions Used in Focus Groups

The moderator of a focus group should ask specialized questions to reap as much intelligence as possible. While this format is generally flexible, there are still certain question types that you should incorporate. These will help you hatch the questions you’ll need. Here are the three types of questions that are most applicable to a focus group, along with question examples:  

  1. Engagement questions
    • These questions are designed to ease participants into the discussion by introducing themselves, 
    • These are easy questions posed early on to introduce the participants to each other, to make them more at ease, and to acquaint them with the main topic at hand. 
    • Questions include:
      • Tell us a bit about yourself.
      • What do you generally think about ads in this industry?
      • What do you think of this ad campaign?
  1. Exploration questions
    • These questions probe deeper into the topic to get a feel of the participants’ feelings about it. 
    • These questions are to be asked after participants begin to get ease into the conversation and become more active in it.
    • Questions include:
      • Why do you feel that way?
      • Have you seen better examples of this type of ad campaign?
      • What would be a better way to go about it?
  1. Exit questions
    • These questions help conclude the session and should be asked when the moderator is certain that the group has expressed everything they can on the topic.
    • They should be used to get confirmation on certain notions.
    • Questions include:
      • Are you sure these are the best approaches?
      • Is there anything else on this topic you’d like to add?

Focus Groups Vs Online Surveys

A focus group is a suitable method to garner qualitative research. It is far more interactive than seeking and providing written responses. So how do focus groups measure up against online surveys? 

This method is useful for finding deep insights into a topic. It allows researchers to get as granular as possible, since they are speaking with the research subjects themselves and can ask anything that they didn’t include in a survey.

An online survey, however, offers benefits that are second to no other market research method. That is because surveys offer more definitive results of a population, since they are not limited to 10 or fewer respondents. A potent online survey tool allows you to reach thousands of people — in just one survey alone.

Additionally, there is no recruitment element. The survey platform is the recruiter in this case, as it allows only the qualified respondents to take part in the survey. It enables researchers to select precise respondents, in ways that go beyond demographics selections alone.

That is because the screener portion of an online survey allows you to ask specific questions and only permit respondents who chose particular answers to take the survey.  

When taking an online survey, respondents cannot be swayed by other participants as they would in a focus group as surveys are lone activities. Therefore, respondents take them in privacy. 

Most importantly, survey software grants responders with anonymity. There is no anonymity in a focus group, so more reserved members will feel less inclined to speak about certain things. Additionally, when domineering respondents are present, it adds another layer of difficulty to the reticent participants, especially to speak about views that are contrary to those of a dominant member.

But with the anonymity of a survey, respondents are free to speak their mind. As such, surveys too can provide qualitative details — so long as researchers include open-ended questions.

Closing off on Focus Groups 

Researchers can use a focus group to their advantage when they seek deeper insights into the perceptions and thoughts of various business matters. Whether you’re testing out a new product idea, seeking the sentiment on an ad campaign, trying out new messaging or seek insights for any other purpose, a focus group is a useful method. However, they are but one market research method; as such they can and often are used with other market research techniques. 

Survey research is one of the most powerful forms of research, in that it empowers researchers to probe into anything and reach relatively anyone (should the software allow it). A strong online survey tool will deploy your survey to the most popular websites and apps, and take no more than 2 days to gather the number of respondents you preset. 

As such, researchers who are serious about conducting market research campaigns should use surveys alongside any other research method, including that of focus groups. 

Frequently asked questions

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a small group of survey research subjects, typically composed of 6-10 participants who take part in a moderated discussion about a particular topic. The participants are chosen based upon similar characteristics.

What is the moderator’s role in a focus group?

The moderator of a focus group leads the discussion by asking questions, proposing talking points, studying the responses and taking notes on the findings. The moderator keeps the conversion flowing and ensures that the discussion remains amicable, even when discussing sensitive topics or opposing opinions.

How can focus groups support a qualitative research project?

Focus groups are used in qualitative research to help gain a deeper understanding of the motivations behind the behavior, attitudes, or feelings of a group of people. By directly addressing a portion of the sample population, researchers can delve into the “why” or “how” behind data that has already been collected.

What are some of the benefits of a focus group?What are some of the disadvantages of focus groups? Focus groups are conducted with a smaller group of people, therefore the recruitment phase can take longer and the thoughts of the group may not represent the larger population. In addition, it is possible that stronger voices can dominate the conversation and influence or obscure the findings.

Focus groups allow for the exploration of deep feelings and opinions, can provoke thoughtful insights, provide quick results, allow researchers to study non-verbal signals that accompany the discussion, and can result in unexpected information.

What are some of the disadvantages of focus groups?

Focus groups are conducted with a smaller group of people, therefore the recruitment phase can take longer and the thoughts of the group may not represent the larger population. In addition, it is possible that stronger voices can dominate the conversation and influence or obscure the findings.