Common Mistakes When Doing Focus Groups

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Mistakes in Focus Groups

Focus Groups are probably the research method with the highest top-of-mind awareness. For many clients I encounter the first thing that comes to mind when they need to conduct market research is Focus Groups.  Focus groups are not right for every research purpose. They should be used for exploration and in-depth understanding, but never to make final decisions.

Focus Groups are more than mere discussions and need a lot of planning if you want to extract any insights out of them. Below are some of the most common mistakes you should avoid when doing Focus Groups (Greenbaun, 1998).


  • The research objectives are not clearly defined: Sometimes, due to tight deadlines, clients want to rush Focus Groups without putting time into thinking through what they want to accomplish with the research. Lack of clear objectives often leads to useless results and wasted money and time.
  • The wrong participants are recruited: The quality of Focus Groups depends greatly on the quality of the participants, so 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. Although  sometimes we want to learn what heavy users and loyal customers want to say, if we don’ have groups we divergent opinions, we won’t  have a point of reference or learn about sources of dissatisfaction and areas in need of improvement
    • Groups that are not homogeneous enough in certain variables relevant to the issue which may disrupt the dynamic and course of the discussion (e.g. different educational levels, different socioeconomic levels, gender, age, etc.)
  • Not enough time is dedicated to the development of the discussion guide: This should be developed between the client and the moderator and put 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 modified on the spot depending on the course of the discussion, the moderator has to make sure that the discussion doesn’t take a long detour from the main objectives and that key questions serving those objectives are posed to the group.  It helps to have a formal discussion guide.
  • Not enough time is dedicated to 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.). Planning is needed to make sure that the stimuli are easily understood and appropriate for the research objectives and different enough to allow us 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.
  • Disruptive method of communication between the moderator and the clients in the back room. 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
    • The moderator gets distracted trying to figure out how to incorporate the request in the discussion flow
    • Diminish the moderator’s perceived authority
  • 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 and avoid the discussion being dominated by a few 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.


  • Observers are biased: More often than not, clients come to Focus Groups with pre-conceived ideas and tend to focus on opinions given by participants that confirm what the client already believed to be “true.” 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 be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of Focus Groups and come with an open mind to listen to what ALL participants have to say, not just a few which happen to agree with the client’s point of view. Both the client and the moderator should be as objective as possible if any real insights are to be gained from Focus Groups.
  • 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.

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 discussed with client the intentions of any probing requests. Clients should come to Focus Groups with an open mind and listen to what ALL participants have to say, not just a few which happen to agree with the client’s point of view. Both the client and the moderator should be as objective as possible if any real insights are to be gained from Focus Groups

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.

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