Common Focus Group Mistakes

Summary: Here are a few focus group mistakes you should avoid during the planning of focus groups and the analysis of its results.

5 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on April 29, 2011
Topics: Market Research, Market Research Cartoons, Qualitative Research

Focus Group Mistakes

Focus group mistakes are common, starting with their use for inappropriate research goals.

This is probably the research method with the highest top-of-mind awareness. For many clients, the first thing that comes to mind when they need to conduct market research is focus groups. 

However, this is not right for every research purpose. Focus groups are best suited for exploration and in-depth understanding, but never to make final decisions.

Focus Groups are more than mere discussions. They need a lot of planning if you want to get useful insights out of them.

Below are some of the most common focus group mistakes you should avoid according to The Handbook For Focus Group Research by Greenbaun, (Sage, 1998).

Mistakes In Focus Groups Planning

1. Unclear research objectives

Sometimes, due to tight deadlines, clients want to rush focus groups without spending time thinking through what they want to accomplish with the research. Lack of clear objectives often leads to useless results and wasted time and money.

2. Recruitment of wrong participants

 The quality of focus froups depends greatly on the quality of the participants. Consequently, clear screening criteria need to be established to avoid:

  • Participants who are not familiar with an issue, product, brand, and organization and have little to contribute to the discussion.
  • Participants who only have positive feelings about a brand, product, or organization. Sometimes we want to learn what heavy users and loyal customers think. However, a lack of divergent opinions eliminates points of reference for sources of dissatisfaction and areas in need of improvement
  • Groups that are not homogeneous enough in certain variables relevant to the issue. This may disrupt the dynamic and course of the discussion (e.g. different educational levels, different socioeconomic levels, gender, age, etc.)

3. Not enough time spent on discussion guide development

We like to develop the discussion guide in close collaboration with the client and put it in writing. It seems obvious, but there are moderators that come to focus groups with general ideas of what should be discussed, without any formal discussion guide.

Although discussion guides often are living documents that may change on the spot depending on the path the discussion takes, we shouldn’t lose sight of the main objectives and key questions serving those objectives. It helps to have a formal discussion guide. Don’t try to “wing it.” That’s one of the most serious focus group mistakes.

4. Not enough time spent on the development of adequate stimuli

Often focus groups are used to explore reactions to product prototypes, packaging, positioning statements, or ad-like objects (TV commercial, print ad, etc.).

We need planning to make sure the stimuli are easily understood and appropriate for the research objectives. They should be different enough to allow us to capture different reactions.  The mistake is often to come with not well-developed stimuli or with too many of them, resulting in sessions that are not as productive as they could be otherwise.

5. Disruptive method of communication between the moderator and the clients in the backroom.

Clients behind the one-way mirror often send notes asking the moderator to probe on a particular question or issue. Sending notes to the moderator creates a set of problems:

  • The discussion stops and may make participants lose their train of thought
  • It can distract the moderator who has to incorporate the request in the discussion flow
  • Diminish the moderator’s perceived authority

The best way to avoid these problems is to plan visits from the moderator to the backroom during the discussion flow, so he or she can discuss with the client the intentions of any probing requests.

6. Inexperienced moderator

 With the increase of DIY research teams at client organizations and smaller budgets, experience sometimes tends to have less weight on the decision about who moderates focus groups. This can be disastrous.

Experienced moderators use a set of techniques to leverage group dynamics to maximize the positive benefits of interaction among participants. They also steer the discussion to avoid having a few dominant voices that can influence others’ reactions to specific questions.

Experience in focus group moderation can make a difference between successful groups that provide great insights and groups that provide misleading information.

Mistakes in Focus Groups Analysis

1. Biased Observers

More often than not, clients come to focus groups with pre-conceived ideas and tend to focus on participants who voice opinions that confirm what the client already believed to be “true.” Clients are humans and are not exempt from confirmation bias.

There are cases, where the clients totally dismiss what they hear and suddenly become research experts blaming the results on the methodology or the moderator.

Clients should come with an open mind to listen to what ALL participants have to say, not just a few who happen to agree with the client’s point of view.

2. Results are quantified

 More than once I have met clients that want to do several groups and count how many participants express a particular opinion, hoping they can project the results.

Results from focus groups should not be quantified. It is useless and misleading to quantify results from focus groups since they are not projectable. Focus groups are about the big picture and overall feelings (about an issue, brand, ad, etc.) and not individual comments.

In Conclusion

Focus groups can provide a lot of insights if done right. Put time into planning, pay for experienced moderators, and make sure you use focus groups for the right purpose.