What is a focus group?
A focus group is a market research tactic used to survey consumer attitudes towards a product, service, or campaign through a moderated conversation amongst participants. In contrast to individual interviews, this research is conducted in a group format, with a trained facilitator present to direct the discussion.
The information gathered through a focus group can help a company in many ways. It might point out necessary adjustments to a product early on in its development lifecycle, or troubleshoot why a campaign isn’t achieving the desired results. It can also help it build on its product differentiation strategies.
A focus group can be a constructive way to understand if a marketing strategy is working or not — and if another type of marketing might be better used.
History and Evolution of Focus groups
The term 'focus group' was coined by marketer and psychologist Ernest Dichter in the 1940s. Dichter used this method to get insights into how people felt about products and advertising. Today, focus groups have evolved significantly thanks to technology and advancements in research methodologies. With the rise of online communities and mobile technology, it's easier and more cost-effective to gather insights from consumers in real-time.
Choosing participants for a focus group
A focus group should be representative of all of the different user profiles that make up a company’s target market, so the results accurately reflect how the audience as a whole will receive the product, service, or campaign in question. Researchers will select participants based on key demographic details, such as educational background, buying habits, geographic location, or age. Most of the time, it’s important to check that focus group members have no prior connection to each other.
Similar to scientists conducting multiple trials of the same experiment, market researchers might even hold multiple focus groups to collect even more feedback and control for extremities or outliers in their data.
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Format of a focus group
The basic structure of a focus group is a group discussion amongst participants, with guidance from a moderator. Sometimes this facilitation is more involved, and other times it’s very light. No matter the approach, the line of questioning will have been carefully determined beforehand and written down in a guidebook.
Throughout the conversation, either the moderator, or other researchers present in the room, will take careful notes on the group’s responses.
A common structure for questioning moves through these three stages:
Engagement questions: Gently open related questions to the topic at hand. If the goal is to analyze consumer reactions to a new phone application for buying groceries, you could begin by asking more general questions, from how they feel about the task of grocery shopping to their phone usage and habits.
Exploration questions: These specifically relate to the main topic of discussion. Continuing with the phone app example, you might ask about particular features they feel are important as grocery shoppers, whether they would be likely to use or trust an app to purchase food, etc. It’s common to later follow up on each of these questions and ask participants to more fully explain their responses.
Exit questions: Check to see if there are any additional thoughts or topics that weren’t addressed by your questions, or that arose after the discussion had moved on.
This flow is intended to help participants comfortably integrate into the conversation. Doing so helps participants respond more freely and honestly, thereby mimicking a natural discussion amongst peers as much as possible.
Key components of focus groups
In order to maximize the impact of using focus groups we recommend the following best practices:
A skilled moderator who can guide the group discussion and keep the conversation focused
A small group of participants (usually between 6-12 people) who represent the target market
A clear set of objectives or research questions to guide the discussion
A comfortable and welcoming environment that encourages open and honest feedback. You need focus group participants to be honest, in order for you to understand how a product or service would do with your target market.
Benefits of Focus groups
There are many benefits to using a focus group before developing a product or marketing strategy around it. Some of the main ones include,
Being able to gather insights into customer perceptions, attitudes, and behavior
Identifying customer needs, wants, and pain points
A better understanding of the target market and their preferences
The opportunity to test and refine product concepts and messaging
In-depth feedback that can inform marketing strategies and tactics
Examples of focus groups
Focus groups have been used effectively in a range of industries, from consumer goods and healthcare to political campaigning and entertainment. Here are a few tried and tested examples:
01. A food company conducts focus groups to get feedback on a new line of snacks and identify which flavors and packaging designs are most appealing to their target audience.
02. A healthcare organization holds focus groups to better understand patients' experiences and needs, helping them tailor services and treatment plans accordingly.
03. A nonprofit organization runs focus groups with potential donors to test and refine different messaging strategies that will resonate with their audience.
Challenges of using focus groups
No marketing strategy is without its challenges, and the more you're aware of the limitations before embarking on the use of focus groups, the better you can plan their structure and impact.
Bear in mind that focus groups can be time-consuming and expensive to conduct, especially if done in-person. There is also a risk of groupthink, where participants may feel pressure to conform to the opinions of the group or the moderator's expectations. This is something your moderator and analysts must be alert to. To mitigate these challenges, businesses can consider conducting focus groups online or using other research methods in conjunction with in-person focus groups.
Focus groups FAQ
What is the role of focus groups in marketing?
The purpose of focus groups in marketing is to gain insights into target consumers' perceptions, attitudes, and behavior in order to make more informed decisions about product development, messaging, marketing strategies, and branding.
How many people should be in a focus group?
A focus group typically includes between 6-12 people who represent the target market.