When Using Focus Groups Makes Sense

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups

As of late I have been receiving many requests to do focus groups. When I ask what the objectives of the research are, and how the information is going to be used, in 99% of the time, doing focus groups is the wrong methodology for what the client wants to accomplish.

In one of the cases, the client wanted to measure advertising effectiveness of a campaign. In another, the client wanted to see how potential customers use some electronic devices with the goal of writing instruction manuals. But the most worrisome case was that of a client wanting to understand the size of the market and who his potential customers were.

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 guidance to a development process (e.g. advertising, packaging, product development)
  • Explore issues to form hypotheses when none exist
  • Understand the story and why behind the numbers from quantitative studies or key performance metrics (e.g. sales)
  • Provide input about issues that should be measured using quantitative research

Focus groups are about exploration and guidance, but don’t give definitive answers. In a recent article about focus groups 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

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

Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Groups


  • New Product Development Studies:  To obtain initial reactions to a new concept or prototype in order to identify strengths and weaknesses and provide guidance on improvements and input for further quantitative and qualitative research.
  • Positioning Studies: To explore effective ways to communicate and talk to target consumers about a product, brand or service. However, the final positioning solution should be tested quantitatively.
  • Habits and Usage Studies: To collect preliminary data to help understand how consumers utilize products and services before developing a quantitative data collection instrument.
  • Packaging Assessments: To identify strengths and weaknesses of various packaging elements during the design stage; to help copywriters to develop the package copy that is most effective, memorable and visible. In more advanced stages of the packaging development, focus groups can be used as a “disaster check” to make sure it is consistent with the brand. Final decision on packaging should then be tested with the help of quantitative research.
  • Attitude Studies: To understand how consumers feel about different products and services before or after a quantitative study
  • Advertising/Copy Evaluation: To provide input about the potential effectiveness of the advertising based on exposure to rough ideas using storyboards during the creative development stage, and help copywriters understand attitudes towards the advertising during the copy development stage
  • Promotion Evaluations: To obtain consumer reactions to promotion concepts so that ideas can be later refined and made more appealing and easier to understand. After a promotional campaign is launched, focus groups can be used to understand why consumers did or did not participate in the promotional program.
  • Idea Generation: To identify specific areas where new products – or modifications of existing ones – might offer benefits. As Greenbaum points out, “participants can’t be expected to create new ideas and products. They can talk about the problems they are having and the wishes they would like to fulfilled, but they will not normally be the source of new ideas. These have to come from the client’s or moderator’s interpretation of their comments.”
  • Employee Attitude and Motivation Studies: To assess corporate employee’s attitudes towards their organization and identify any problems that should be addressed.

In all the types of research mentioned above, focus groups should be used for exploration and guidance for further research, often quantitative. Never, ever make final decisions on whether to launch a product, select a packaging, go with a positioning concept, or get married to a creative solution for an advertisement or promotion, solely based on focus groups.

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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