What Is a Market Research Focus Group?

Small focus group discussing ad layouts.
rubberball/Getty Images

A focus group is a gathering of deliberately selected people who participate in a planned discussion that is intended to elicit consumer perceptions about a particular topic or area of interest in an environment that is non-threatening and receptive. The focus group is a collective on purpose. Unlike an interview, which usually occurs with an individual, the focus group method allows members of the group to interact and influence each other during the discussion and consideration of ideas and perspectives.

Advantages of Focus Groups as a Market Research Method

Focus group methods permit alternative ways of obtaining information from consumers without the common knee-jerk response to use a survey. Survey instruments tend to be looked at as scientific, particularly when they produce quantitative data, and so may be overused by those who lack confidence in other market research strategies.

But focus groups have a distinct advantage over some other types of market research: they are flexible by design, capitalize on decision-makers ability to talk to their customers and their knowledge of their brand, product, or services. A good moderator who prepares well for the focus group will act as a proxy for the decision-makers.

Focus groups are conducted as part of a series in which the participants vary but the area of interest is constant. Conducting several focus groups can help smooth any irregular group differences, for instance, when a particular group simply does not warm to the topic or to the moderator (or even to each other).

In addition, environmental variables that may or may not be apparent to the market researcher can impact the focus group outcomes. Ensuring that several focus groups are conducted is a straightforward way to avoid this type of "noise."

The purpose of a focus group is not to arrive at a consensus, some level of agreement, or to decide what to do about something.

Focus groups are designed to identify the feelings, perceptions, and thinking of consumers about a particular product, service, or solution. It does that very well, in part, because focus groups utilize qualitative data collection methods. Just as in the dynamics of real life, the participants are able to interact, influence, and be influenced.

What Contributes to Focus Group Success?

  • The quality of the focus group outcomes depends on the discussion. If focus group participants become annoyed or intimidated by an upscale apparatus or even the standard supports to focus group research, they may be distracted from the task at hand - exploring their deep feelings, perceptions, and decisions about the research topic.
  • Participants must be comfortable enough to interact openly. The line of questioning used in focus groups, known as the questioning route or the interview guide or protocol, is predetermined and follows a logical sequence that is intended to mimic a natural exchange. Moderators avoid abrupt changes of direction or topic, and they are careful to ensure that all participants in the focus group have input and contribute as equally as possible. Focus group members must be able to interpret the context for the discussion and, as much as possible, find it logical and comfortable.
  • Focus group research findings are robust. When focus group participants are genuinely engaged in the study and the moderator is sufficiently skillful, the outcome can be clarity about major themes. A micro-analysis of the information that emerges from the study is not as easy to achieve through focus group methods. This simply points to the appropriate application of focus groups and does not mean that careful use of techniques and protocol should not proceed.

The Changing Nature of Focus Groups

The approaches used in focus group market research are changing.

Researchers are using smaller groups to conduct market research than they have in the past and with good results. The outcomes when using smaller numbers of participants in focus groups often are deeper and probe the unconscious or unexpressed preferences of consumers.

Some of the modes of analysis used for focus groups are radically different from the transcript-based analysis that was considered to be the sine qua non of focus group research.

Non-researchers contribute to contemporary focus groups, where in the past, non-researchers are eschewed - they usually created more work for the market researchers and they tended to side-track the research process due to their lack of research process knowledge.

Participants in focus groups have become more diverse. This requires sensitivity and being self-aware so that people who may be marginalized in society are able to comfortably share their perceptions and opinions with people in power.