When Using Focus Groups Makes Sense

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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 methodology 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 Goals

Focus groups make sense when the primary goals of the research are to:

  • Explore feelings, perceptions, and motivations
  • Understand why consumers react to a product or advertising message in a certain way
  • Provide initial guidance to the creative process (e.g., advertising, packaging, product development)
  • Form hypotheses when none exist
  • Understand the story and why behind the numbers from quantitative studies or key performance metrics (e.g., sales)
  • Gain deeper insights about issues measured using quantitative research

Inappropriate Goals

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

In an article by Freya Gaertner, she quotes Karen Sandberg who in a Harvard Management Communication Letter writes, “use focus groups not to draw conclusions, but to understand the conclusions drawn.”

Focus groups are NOT appropriate for:

  • Making go/no-go decisions on product, advertising, or promotion launches
  • Profiling and sizing target markets
  • Measuring marketing effectiveness, awareness, and usage

Advantages & Disadvantages

Focus groups have their place in the research toolbox. Like any other research method, they have advantages and disadvantages. As a result., they 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.

On the other hand, the samples are small. Consequently, we can’t project the results to a large population. In addition, they often take place in artificial environments. Group influence or a lack of anonymity can bias the results.

Moreover, it is easy to make mistakes in focus groups, particularly if they not conducted by experienced moderators.

In short, before deciding on the research method, consider first the research objectives.

Never, ever base final decisions on whether to launch a product, select a packaging, go with a positioning concept, or a creative solution for an advertisement or promotion, solely on focus groups.

(An earlier version of this article was originally published on April 22, 2011. The article was last updated and revised on July 8, 2019.)

Comments Comments

Susan Brudvig Posted: April 23, 2011

Great piece on use (and mis-use) of Focus Groups! Will be using as reading for #BallState marketing students.

Michaela Mora Posted: April 25, 2011

Thank you so much for your comment. I’m honored!

Mary Addo Posted: June 8, 2011

I find this webpage very resourceful and will be directing my students to it.

Michaela Mora Posted: June 8, 2011

Thank you Mary!

Mike McMillan Posted: March 27, 2014

Good information here. For a sustainability class I have to conduct a focus group as part of a large research project, and we have to do a paper defending the legitimacy of focus groups.

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