Focus groups - hot or not?

July 01, 2017

Focus groups - hot or not?

When an agency (or a client) wants to gain the opinion of a select group of people, a focus group may be the research method chosen. 



Qualitative research: "Primarily a form of exploratory research. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. It provides insights into the problem or helps to develop ideas or hypotheses for potential quantitative research."  ( 

Quantitative research: "Used to quantify the problem by way of generating numerical data or data that can be transformed into useable statistics. It is used to quantify attitudes, opinions, behaviours, and other defined variables – and generalise results from a larger sample population." ( 

Focus groups: "A form of qualitative research consisting of interviews in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging." (


In a focus group survey, respondents from the target demographic are typically put in a single group (usually 6 to 12 members), and interviewed in an interactive manner. The participants are given the opportunity to talk freely about the topic at hand and express their thoughts and opinions. 

The focus group approach presents various pros, strengths and benefits, as well as cons, weaknesses and drawbacks. It's important for an account manager to be aware of both sides of the coin, and to understand when it may be advantageous to suggest a focus group solution to your client. 

You may also be faced with a situation where your client wants to conduct a focus group, and you know that he will likely be heavily influenced by the results, which in turn could impact your agency's work. It would be advantageous if your client includes you in the focus group preparation, so you can advise on questions to ask, respondents to select, etc.

Understanding the pros and cons of focus groups will enable you to have informed conversations about the process and results.

The pros 
  • A focus group levels the playing field of a demographic. Differences (such as socioeconomic or education levels) are removed as everyone is an equal contributor. 
  • Focus groups work well for groups of young children, people for whom your local language is a second language, and people with lower literacy levels (all examples of when talking is easier than writing). 
  • It works well in a B2C context. 
  • Respondents can build/develop on each other's responses. 
  • Focus groups can be conducted online, therefore reach is increased. 
  • It is a fun exercise for participants. 
  • There is a certain level of anonymity (especially if conducted online). 
  • Focus groups can be cost effective. Typical costs include: meeting room hire, A/V equipment, transcription services, food and drink, and possibly hotel accommodation and travel expenses. 
  • Questioning can be altered to fit the flow of a conversation. 
The cons 
  • The survey results may not fully represent the opinion of the target demographic. 
  • You can't always dictate how the group will be chosen. 
  • Questions can be biased toward a pre-determined outcome. 
  • Facilitators can have significant influence on the final outcome. 
  • If you put a group of people into a room, a leader tends to emerge. Opinions and results can be altered/swayed with strong leadership.  
  • It does not work so well in a B2B context (it's difficult to get a group of busy professionals around a table at one time). 
  • There may be a lack of participation by some people. 
  • The facilitator must be well-trained to handle any situation that may arise during the group interaction. 
  • Often people don't know why they think a certain way other than "it just feels right". 
  • People can consider different group answers and so their own opinions begin to evolve (therefore which answer do you take as the person's opinion?). 
  • If people feel like they will be judged by those in the group, they tend to alter what gets said, even at the expense of their personal opinions. 
  • Responses that are non-verbal may be misinterpreted (e.g. folded arms could mean a person is defensive, bored, or just comfortable). 
  • Security concerns can be quite real. A heated discussion can go from shouting to violence within a short amount of time. 

There is an inherent danger in letting the results of a single focus group guide your client's business or campaign direction. The hope is that the insights obtained will be enlightening, but the main thing is that focus group results should be considered in context with a wider body of information, such as research, analytics, sales reports, personal observations, and anecdotal feedback before important decisions are made. 



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