When Using Focus Groups Makes Sense

Summary: Focus groups have their place in the research toolbox. Like any other research method, they have advantages and disadvantages. They are not a good fit for every research need.

7 minutes to read. By author Michaela Mora on March 12, 2023
Topics: Analysis Techniques, Market Research, Market Research Cartoons, Qualitative Research

When Using Focus Groups Makes Sense

For many decades, focus groups were synonymous with qualitative research in market research. Now is just one of the many tools used by market researchers when doing qualitative research.

A Little Bit of History…

Focus groups have roots in sociology and were a response to traditional individual interviews that used questionnaires (surveys) with closed-ended response choices, which can unintentionally influence findings through oversight or omission by the researchers. By asking open-ended questions in a non-directive way, the attention shifted from the interviewer to the respondents. The focus was on getting in tune with the reality of the interviewee.

This nondirective interviewing approach increased in appeal in the late 1930s and 1940s and was used in studies of employee motivation and in psychotherapy. The classic book by Merton, Fiske, and Kendall, The Focused Interview (1956), established many of the now-accepted methods used in focus group interviews.

Although not fully accepted by most academics in sociology, the pragmatic market research community embraced focus groups in the 1950s, when business was booming after the war. Market researchers’ job was to find how to make a company’s products most attractive to potential customers.

In the 1980s, academics began rediscovering focus group interviewing, often learning from market researchers. Still, some of the accepted practices in business focus groups didn’t work well in academic and nonprofit settings.

Consequently, various unique ways of conducting focus group interviews have been developed for consumer-oriented market research, academic and scientific research, nonprofit and public environment research, and participatory research (where community members or volunteers are involved as researchers in a study)

What Is a Focus Group?

A focus group isn’t just a casual chat with a group of people or a group meeting to reach a consensus. This is a special type of group in terms of purposes, size, composition, and procedures.

The purpose of a focus group is to listen and gather information. It is a means of gaining insight into how people feel or think about a topic, problem, product, or service.  

We carefully craft the set of questions in a focus group, a.k.a discussion guide. We phrase and organize the questions so they are easy to comprehend and logical to the participants. On the surface, they seem to be spontaneous, yet they are actually the result of thoughtful consideration. We often start with general questions, and as the discussion progresses, the questions become more focused.

A single focus group isn’t enough. To recognize patterns and trends, we need to conduct the group discussion multiple times with similar participants. Careful and structured analysis of the conversations can yield clues and knowledge of how people understand and perceive products, services, issues, topics, problems, or opportunities.

In short, a focus group study is a carefully organized set of group conversations that are carried out to get a better understanding of perceptions about a specific area of interest in a relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere.

The goal is to encourage participants to be open about themselves. We’re interested in figuring out what people truly think and feel. Self-disclosure is easy for some people. For others, it is a challenge and requires trust and courage. Disclosure can be effortless in some settings but difficult in others.

Why Do Focus Groups Work?

We can find a hint of an answer in the paradox of confiding in (near) strangers. It’s not unusual for people to talk with strangers who are sitting close to them on a train or a plane for a long trip and disclose personal information. Why would they do that?

It’s possible that they:

  • Feel they share a similarity, are alike in some way, they share a common interest, trait, or experience.
  • Experience a sense of safety in the environment.
  • Expect no consequences, even if the other person has a negative opinion of what they are told. They probably won’t see each other again, so who cares?

We select participants for focus groups based on their similar characteristics that are related to the topic. And the researcher creates a supportive atmosphere in the focus group that allows participants to express their thoughts without fear of judgment or feeling pressured to agree.

When to Use Focus Groups?

When clients request focus groups, I first ask about the research objectives and how the information is going to be used. In most cases, this is the wrong method for what the client wants to accomplish.

For example, one client wanted to measure the advertising effectiveness of a campaign.

In another case, a client responsible for writing instruction manuals was interested in understanding how users interacted with a device.

However, the most worrisome case was a client wanting to understand the size of the market and who his potential customers were.

The Right Use of Focus Groups

Focus groups are appropriate for:

  • Exploring a range of ideas, needs, motivations, and feelings that people have about something.
  • Understanding differences at a deeper level in perspectives between groups of people.
  • Discovering factors influencing behaviors and attitudes.
  • Generating new ideas.
  • Uncovering the story and why behind the numbers from quantitative studies or key performance metrics. Understand drawn conclusions.
  • Providing input about issues that we should include in quantitative research.
  • Formulating hypotheses when none exists.

Examples of Practical Applications

  • Identify specific areas where new products or modifications of existing ones might offer benefits. Idea generation.
  • Understand why consumers react to a product concept or advertising message in a certain way.
  • Gather early feedback on a new idea, prototype, or message to identify its strong and weak points and offer advice on how to make it better.
  • Explore effective ways to communicate and talk about products, services, issues, etc. (e.g., advertising, customer communications, employee communications, packaging, product information, etc.).
  • Conduct a “disaster check” to make sure product messaging, packaging, and positioning are consistent with the brand.

The Wrong Use of Focus Groups

Focus groups are about exploration and guidance but don’t give definitive answers.

Focus groups are NOT appropriate for:

  • Asking for sensitive information that should not be shared in a group or can cause harm to someone if they share it in a group.
  • Capturing detailed information about the natural context in which needs, behaviors, attitudes, and experiences take place.
  • Building consensus to support decisions on whether to launch a product, advertising, or promotion.
  • Making statistical projections of any type (e.g., determining the market size and profile).
  • Looking for quantitative metric substitutes (e.g., measuring marketing effectiveness, awareness, and usage.
  • Educating people about a topic or issue and persuading them to take a course of action (e.g., buying a product or service, supporting a policy, etc.).

Advantages & Disadvantages

Focus groups have their place in the research toolbox. Like any other research method, they have advantages and disadvantages and are not a good fit for every research need.


In group discussions, we can closely observe people’s facial expressions and body language. We can also hear language expressions and understand how to talk about products and services.

Focus groups also:

  • Speed up data collection: As many people are interviewed at once, data collection and analysis proceed relatively quickly.
  • Offer flexibility: The group interview allows for a range of topics to be discussed and the chance to delve deeply into each of them.
  • Facilitate interaction: A group has the potential to be more than the components, to show a synergy that can’t be seen with just one person. Unexpected ideas may come out of the blue.
  • Provide stimulation: Generally, after a short introduction, the participants are ready to express their ideas and share their feelings as the general level of excitement over the topic increases in the group.
  • Establish safety: Because of similarities between group members in some dimensions, they feel comfortable and safe, which promotes a willingness to express their ideas and feelings.
  • Allow scrutiny: The group interview provides an opportunity to observe the data-collection process, as observers can witness the session and record it for later review.


Like any other research method, focus groups have disadvantages as well.

  • Do not provide conclusive results: Focus group results are exploratory by design and can be misleading and misused if they are seen as conclusive due to small samples and instructed data.
  • Results are not projectable: Focus group results are not representative of the general population. Samples are small and selected with sampling procedures that don’t lead to a representation of the full universe of the population we are studying. Subsequently, decisions should not be dependent solely on focus group results.
  • Unstructured data: Similar to other qualitative research techniques, the unstructured nature of the responses makes coding, analysis, and interpretation difficult. The data is messy.
  • Prone to biases: Are susceptible to client and researcher biases, and the results can be more easily misjudged compared to other data-collection techniques.
  • Moderation skills required: It is difficult to moderate focus groups. The moderator’s expertise and experience have a huge effect on the results. It t is easy to make mistakes in focus groups, particularly if they are not conducted by experienced moderators.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups

In Short

Before deciding on the research method, consider first the research objectives. Never base final decisions solely on focus groups. Honor the insights this method can provide while being aware of its limitations. Overuse it and abuse it to your own peril!