Focus groups are perhaps the best-known marketing research technique. Focus groups leverage the dynamics of group interaction to generate qualitative (i.e., non-projectable) feedback on marketing-related issues, and to develop hypotheses for future testing. They are not projectable to the larger population being studied.

Focus groups are often misunderstood and frequently misused by news organizations and political operatives. A TV host that asks people to raise their hands for “yes” or “no” is not a focus group; that is theater.

Focus groups are used at many different stages of the marketing process and can be conducted among virtually any audience. Typical uses include:

  • Exploring consumer attitudes, motivations, and buying behaviors
  • Identify insights and to build consumer language
  • Feedback on ideas, advertising, formulations, or packaging
  • Internally generate ideas for strategic or organizational purposes

Focus groups can be full groups or mini-groups. Full groups typically consist of 10 respondents plus a moderator, and last two hours. Full groups are well-suited for discussions that require more extensive exploration of issues, that employ group exercises, or when there are numerous stimuli. In full groups, the relatively large number of respondents requires that the moderator be skilled at managing different personalities/points of view, and the ability to play respondents off of one another in a collegial way.

Mini-groups are a scaled-back version of full groups, typically consisting of 4-6 respondents, plus a moderator. They are shorter, typically 1½ hours or less. Versus full groups, mini-groups are well-suited to topics that require more individualized questioning (e.g., understanding motivations), or when recruiting barriers exist (e.g., medical specialists, industrial buyers).

Pros: Focus groups are a fast, direct feedback tool in a highly adaptable format. They are excellent for hypothesis development, and getting marketing teams involved in the research process.

Cons: There is a strong tendency to “run” with focus group findings, (especially when they are positive) and bypass subsequent quantitative verification. The researcher needs to manage expectations.

The above is an abbreviated excerpt. “Focus Groups” is but one of the chapters in the Pocket Guide to Basic Marketing Research Tools that covers a number of popular research methods. To get your copy of this chapter, please download here.

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