Focusing on Focus Groups: Best Practices
Read time: 6 minutes
Before embarking on a road trip, you should know exactly why you’re taking the journey (Sightseeing? Catching up with old friends? Moving?) because those goals will in turn inform the route you choose and the stops selected along the way to your destination. This axiom also holds true in market research. One’s research method should be chosen expressly based on your business problem at hand and — by extension — the knowledge needs required to inform it. Are you seeking to prioritize new markets? Develop a product road map? Identify target buyers? Understand consumers’ attitudes? Hone your message?
Two types of research — primary and secondary — can, depending on one’s information goals, be best suited toward such knowledge needs. Secondary research, often including trade journals, published studies, and provider collateral, leverages (as the name suggests) previously existing information. It is often central to market or competitive studies but less useful when aiming to understand one’s audience. Primary research, by contrast, generates brand-new datasets. It is especially helpful in informing decisions hinging upon deep customer insight — such as behaviors in a particular market, needs driving attractiveness of a product or service, or reaction to a campaign concept.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research
There are two forms of primary research: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative studies — usually via questionnaires (a survey from your airline about your recent flight, or a political poll) — gather data at scale. Questions tend to be direct and close-ended, from an instrument designed in advance and fixed at launch. The approach is best deployed to validate one’s current state (which can surface ways to improve) or to test opportunities that one has already, at minimum, defined — whether it be a market, product feature, or messaging concept.
Qualitative research, by contrast, presents exciting occasions for research to be investigative. Formats include discussions, journals, or ethnography (e.g., observation). Although smaller, more directional samples are tapped, design is personal and more loosely structured, and it can be highly iterative. Qualitative research is an ideal way to explore audiences’ attitudes, behaviors, reactions to concepts, and rationales for why they behave the way they do.
Essentially, quantitative research answers “What?” while qualitative research digs into “Why?”
Anatomy of a Focus Group
Qualitative research can be executed as either individual or group discussions, each involving cohorts of people who represent one’s target stakeholders by sharing similar demographic or behavioral traits. The focus group is composed of as few as 2 (a dyad) or as many as 12 people, but typically includes about 4 to 8, thereby striking a nice balance between each individual’s chance to voice their stories and opinions against collective variety of input.
Focus groups are time-bound, usually 1.5 to 2 hours, and should be led by a trained moderator who can handle an aggressive agenda of questions within the specified time frame. A skilled moderator is also adept at managing different types of personalities at once — tamping down those who tend to dominate the conversation and drawing out participation among those more hesitant to share.
Until recent years, focus groups were held almost exclusively in person at dedicated research facilities (readers may have observed or participated on either side of their one-way mirrors), but have trended — even pre-COVID, yet certainly amplified by the pandemic — toward being run remotely via online videoconference.
Why Focus Groups?
Focus groups should foster interaction and should not be merely a series of questions asked to each participant. Ideally, they are designed expressly to generate exchanges of information — which can include arriving at consensus (though not an explicit goal), identifying areas where audience viewpoints diverge, or building upon others’ ideas to arrive at a new or improved solution. Perhaps one participant validates another’s feelings, or somebody tells a unique story explaining why they think differently. Because focus groups can even be emotional (e.g., pain medication, financial conflicts), bravery of one participant to share may prompt others to also open up.
Focus groups are visual. Researchers have the opportunity to not only capture narrative feedback by voice but can also glean clues from visceral facial expressions and body language.
Focus groups are live. Because sponsors can observe in real time, they can submit follow-up or new questions directly to the moderator and begin dialogue among themselves about the impact of feedback being heard.
Focus groups can be comparative. They are often designed to spotlight dynamics of different stakeholders. For example, a B2B product may run several groups each featuring buyers from a different target vertical, or a consumer product may hold groups featuring various age bands.
Types of Focus Groups
Focus groups are typically structured to pursue one of three research goals:
- Experience: These sessions are designed for listening and probing. They seek to reveal how an audience thinks or behaves — uncovering how they learn, shop, buy, or use a product. Such groups are often commissioned when sponsors are considering new markets or aiming to reach a new, yet-to-be-understood customer segment.
- Workshop: Here, participants are tasked with assignments — such as adding new features, imagining new solutions, or building a resonant message. Workshops help sponsors explore how audiences can get the most out of solutions or feel about brands.
- Test: The captive setting allows sponsors to evaluate a variety of concepts: product ideas, brand names or logos, campaigns, taglines, ads, websites, even distribution channels or pricing models.
These approaches are not mutually exclusive — rather, in one focus group some lines of questioning can probe on experiences, and others can introduce a concept for reaction.
Focus Group Best Practices
Whatever type of focus group you run, some established best practices can help make the most of your effort and spend.
- Go Small: More intimate groups give respondents space to bond, and when participants forge relationships they’re more likely to be forthcoming. Smaller groups also allow more input per person — for example, in a two-hour session consisting of four people, each gets 30 minutes of “talk time,” while if among eight people, each would have just 15 minutes.
- Simplify: Sponsors often have a natural impulse to take advantage of the assembled group by cramming as many topics as possible into the session. This is a grave mistake, since lobbing many questions in rapid succession constrains opportunity to explore each in depth. Fewer but more strategic questions, by contrast, allow ample room for conversation on each topic. After all, it’s a “focus” group!
- Avoid Bias: Questions should be open-ended and nonleading, framed so respondents can answer in their own words, using their own constructs. “Tell us what’s best about this concept” should be replaced with “Tell us what you think about this concept.”
- Be Transparent: Participants should be forewarned that the session is being recorded and they’re being observed. And they should be encouraged that their honest, candid feedback is needed — sponsors are keen to know what they really feel, not what respondents think that sponsors want to hear.
- Have Fun: Focus groups should be engaging (if not always truly enjoyable) for participants. The pace should be kept lively, and, where appropriate, humor can help break the ice.
Focus groups are a useful tool in one’s research toolbox to explore a target audiences’ behavior, unpack their needs, or surface their preferences. Especially if one’s business decision must be informed by audience feedback (often in advance of quantitative testing), consider the focus group as a destination along your research road trip.
About Steve Wolf
Steve Wolf is a seasoned market researcher and marketing strategy consultant, with 20 years in the field leading research and consulting assignments across industries including finance, healthcare, education, technology, and retail. He has conducted 1,000+ qualitative interviews, moderated 250+ focus groups, and facilitated dozens of client workshops. He has also led dozens of secondary research assignments, ranging from market environment assessments to competitive analyses, industry “beacons,” emerging innovations, and customer profiles.
Steve is also a highly experienced marketing strategy consultant. His core areas of expertise span market entry analysis, brand positioning development, target segment activation, multichannel strategy, campaign planning, and customer experience improvement. Prior to founding WolfWorks in 2012, Steve led engagements at two Washington, D.C.-based research and consulting firms. Previously, he analyzed e-commerce in Toyota’s strategic planning group, led brand-name development and research at the agency Interbrand, and worked in consumer marketing and sales at Wenner Media. Steve earned an MBA from the University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler Business School) as a Jenrette Fellow.
Read more in our article, What is a B2B Focus Group?
Or, download a copy of our ebook,
Diving Deeper: GLG’s Guide to Effective Qualitative Research.
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