Over the years, focus groups have been credited with everything from the conception of Barbie to the perfection of Betty Crocker cake mix to Southwest Airlines’ consistently friendly flight staff.

Marketers have long used the small-group format to plumb the cultural subconscious and hear directly from employees and customers. In recent years, some critics have predicted the demise of focus groups, due to the rise of advanced analytics and hyper-informed consumers. But in fact, the opposite has proven true. 

Supported by a growing $70B+ market research industry, the focus group is undergoing a revival. Conversations traditionally bound by physical meeting rooms are being remade for online spaces. Live chats and mobile apps are enabling marketers to engage customers in more targeted and cost-effective ways.

While skeptics are right that focus groups aren’t necessary for every research situation, the format continues to be widely used in conjunction with quantitative methods to add context and depth to customer data. 

Focus Groups 101

Focus groups are a form of qualitative research, which means they rely on non-numerical or open-ended responses. Whereas quantitative methods, like multiple-choice surveys and polls, excel at measuring customer sentiment at scale, qualitative methods are better positioned for exploratory research. A stray comment in a focus group might inspire a new hypothesis or question (which can then be tested through quantitative methods). Surveys can only measure what researchers have already thought to ask.

How It Works

Focus groups typically involve six to twelve participants and a single moderator tasked with guiding the conversation. After fielding initial impressions about a given brand or product, the moderator will steer the conversation towards specific topics and questions that align with the objective of that session. Ideally, the environment of the room is comfortable, and the group rapport is inviting and collaborative so that no single voice overpowers the discussion.

Types of Focus Groups

Most focus groups follow a similar overall workflow, but they can vary in their particular purpose or format. A few examples include:

  • Descriptive: Participants share their thoughts and feelings about a product or service. Often used to inform creative testing and media planning.
  • Situational: Moderators describe specific scenarios and ask participants how they might react, or suspect a reasonable person would act when faced with those circumstances. Applicable for crisis management and mergers and acquisitions.
  • Demonstration: Hands-on session in which an outside facilitator guides participants through a new product or service. Helpful for R&D and product development.
  • Online: Participants engage with each other and the moderators through online touchpoints such as live chats, discussion boards, and branded communities.

Why Conduct a Focus Group 

Focus groups are versatile, revelatory, and cost-effective (especially when conducted online). While big data provides ever more granular snapshots of customer behavior, qualitative research remains the only way to discover underlying reasons, perceptions, and values for why people act the way they do. 

Focus Groups vs. Surveys

Market researchers should avoid thinking about qualitative and quantitative research as an either/or proposition. Both formats have an important role to play in constructing a holistic view of your customer, a value far greater than the sum of each individual part. 

  • Pre-Quant: Designing a Fool-Proof Questionnaire: Many researchers consider focus groups an essential step in preparing any effective survey. Free-response opportunities often reveal gaps or confusion around terminology, question batteries, and screening criteria. 
  • Post-Quant: Supplementing Data With Narrative: Once you’ve collected data through a survey or poll, focus groups can supplement those insights with language that speaks to customer motivations, beliefs, and attitudes. These stories will help communicate findings across departments and build consensus regarding the next steps.

Benefits of Focus Groups

  • Discovery: Unstructured nature of conversations spark new hypotheses and questions, as well as unanticipated challenges and opportunities.
  • Speed: Focus groups generate a large amount of qualitative data in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Versatility: Flexible small-group format can address everything from product demos to message testing to crisis management and more.
  • Access: Interpersonal dialogues enable researchers to observe emotional responses that would otherwise be hidden in a multiple-choice survey.

Limitations of Focus Groups

  • Scale: Given their intimate size, focus groups are never a true replacement for “statistically meaningful” quantitative sampling methods.
  • Control: Group discussions can easily derail if not managed by an experienced moderator who knows how to cover the full range of research questions.
  • Quality: While strong screening certainly helps, groups are always vulnerable to a lack of chemistry or bouts of “groupthink.”
  • Analysis: Lengthy transcripts from focus groups are not as easily analyzed as standardized surveys.

Tips For Running a Focus Group 

There are a few basic steps you can follow to make sure your research investment yields a meaningful return: 

  • Define your research objective and what decisions will be informed by the findings. Articulating a clear purpose helps moderators focus the discussion, as there is rarely enough time to cover more than three to five main topics within a typical 60 or 90-minute focus group.
  • Segment your target market using demographics, personality profiles, purchase history, and any other relevant filters. 
  • Identify appropriate recruitment channels to effectively reach prospective participants. For niche audiences, more targeted channels may be necessary, including specialized forums, discussion boards, and loyalty programs. 
  • Choose a convenient time and place for your focus group and decide on a technical solution for recording the discussion (such as audio, video, and/or in-person research associates). 
  • Practice mindful moderation so that participants speak openly and collaboratively. Begin with soft ice-breaker questions, emphasizing the importance of honesty and non-judgment. Avoid leading questions that might steer respondents towards a particular or desired answer.
  • Find themes and narratives in your data to make sense of the discussion transcript and begin drawing conclusions. These connections will form the “story” of your study, which should connect back to your objective as well as recommended next steps.

The Added Value of Continuous Research

In the smartphone era, the benefits of focus groups are available to market researchers on a round-the-clock basis. The average person now spends upwards of eleven hours every day online, creating new opportunities for researchers to engage participants through convenient digital platforms. 

From quick social polls to video-conferencing to gamified experiences, these digital touchpoints are facilitating entirely new kinds of studies. For example, market researchers are now using video journals as a way to collect experiential data over the course of several days or weeks as participants explore a new product or service.

Many brands—across industries ranging from media to healthcare to logistics—have translated the collaborative spirit of focus groups into more continuous engagements, whether through social media or branded mobile apps. The value of this approach can be seen in the success of companies like Starbucks and H&R Block, for whom customer communities have become a significant source of competitive advantage. 

While most companies still rely on focus groups as discrete studies to inform reactive business decisions, savvy market researchers can gain an edge by exploring continuous engagements. When a research problem arises, such customer communities are on-hand to offer immediate feedback. Over time, the cost of each study drops precipitously, as researchers save time and resources by avoiding costly rounds of re-recruiting the same groups of people. 

The continued investment into online research tools all but ensures that the future is bright for marketing’s oldest research technique. Focus groups are being remade in exciting new ways to take advantage of mobile devices and digital technology. Keep the format in mind for your next research project, and if you come across another op-ed predicting its imminent demise, allow yourself to keep scrolling.