The focus group interview brings together a small number of individuals in a group format for an open, in-depth discussion focused on some research topic of interest to the client. In contrast to the structured individual interview in which the information flow is unidirectional, between the interviewer and respondent, the group setting encourages the ideas and opinions of each individual to be considered and discussed by the group.
A skilled moderator guides discussion in a nondirective manner to encourage group interaction, overcome individual inhibitions, and to probe topics in some depth. Focus group interviewing is categorized as qualitative research, because data are not numeric, but are the result of the moderator’s subjective interpretation of the meaning of the verbal and non-verbal content of group discussion.
The focus group interview is generally considered as a quick, relatively inexpensive, and flexible method for identifying consumers’ perceptions, attitudes, desires, and behaviors toward a topic area. As such, focus group interviews are often used in the initial stages of a research project as an exploratory research method to help generate hypotheses and to identify and pretest questionnaire items.
Focus group interviewing serves many marketing decision needs, from generating new product ideas, to assessing consumer opinions on new product concepts, brand comparisons, packaging, and advertising copy. Heaviest usage is among consumer packaged-goods companies. The variety of research uses is suggested by several examples of focus group research.
An electric utility company initially used focus groups to examine consumer opinions of and resistance to proposed utility rate increases, for use in its rate negotiations and to generate advertising campaign ideas. The hypotheses developed from focus groups were then quantitatively measured in a follow-up phone survey of a large, random sample of consumers in the company’s trading area.
Focus group research is spreading widely beyond industrial and consumer goods companies. Even lawyers are using them to pre-test trial arguments. Universities have reported success in using them to tailor in their recruiting and fund-raising efforts, and public-service organizations find them helpful in determining how to allocate funds.
Focus groups are especially useful in exploratory stages of research. Compared with structured interviews, focus groups are easier to set up, less expensive, and generate results more quickly.
Persuading subjects to join a focus group is usually easy. A video recorded session typically runs from one and a half to two hours in length, and costs under $3,500. Evaluation and reporting of results can follow within several days.
The interview length and lack of tight structure allow the moderator considerable flexibility to take advantage of unexpected responses and probe areas previously thought unimportant. The small-group environment typically consists of 8 to 12 persons not personally acquainted but sharing common backgrounds.
The group encourages participation, offers emotional support and a sense of group rapport that allows the moderator to explore sensitive topic areas more effectively than in individual interviews.
- Focus groups can be used for a variety of purposes:
- To provide background information for research personnel and their clients. Observing and directly experiencing focus group customers’ reactions to their products can be valuable to executives having little in common with their customers, and in new or rapidly-changing markets where their experience is limited.
- To generate hypotheses about the way consumers think or behave. The purpose here is exploring research to help define problems which can be ana¬lyzed and confirmed through further quantitative research.
- To structure survey questionnaires by uncovering relevant questions and response categories.
- To test and evaluate new product concepts. This popular use of focus groups explores how potential consumers perceive a new product concept and evaluate its abilities to meet their needs.
- To generate new product ideas or stimulate new ideas about existing products.
- To find explanations for results of other quantitative studies.
- First, group members discuss products they use for a particular need or situation, with little moderator intervention.
- Next, the moderator guides members to discuss among themselves how they rate alternative products.
- Finally, the moderator probes their feelings about why they favor some products over others.
Most experts report that ideal focus group size is from eight to twelve people per session. Socially and intellectually homogeneous groups are most productive.
One advertising agency almost never puts married, full-time housewives with children at home in the same group as unmarried, working women, believing their lifestyles and needs are completely different.
While there is disagreement as to the importance of good recruiting, most researchers agree that individuals should have some experience with the product category being studied, and persons with previous focus group experience should not participate.
The physical environment is important. The atmosphere should be relaxed to encourage discussion. Client observation of sessions is valuable. Observation through a one-way mirror allows unobtrusive note-taking and monitoring of nonverbal communications within the group.
Video recording allows further observation by the client and moderator before drawing conclusions.
The moderator’s role is of prime importance. Moderators must establish group rapport and guide the discussion through relevant topics, encouraging individual spontaneity and group interaction. The moderator also analyzes and interprets the data from the session.
Thus, moderators should possess considerable verbal ability, interviewing skills, and insights into group behavior, as well as knowledge of the subject at hand.
The increasing popularity of the focus group method reflects its use as an exploratory research tool to uncover marketing problems and opportunities and to guide follow-up research. Focus groups are especially well-suited for new product concept and prototype testing, studying advertising and packaging changes, and adver¬tising copy formulations.
There are no set guidelines for interviewing, no formulas, and no strategems commonly prescribed by its users. Researchers disagree about when focus group interviews are appropriate and how research should be done.
Perhaps the most serious problem that has intensified with higher costs of quantitative research is the use of focus groups as the sole source of information in planning and decision-making. While the technique can provide considerable data at modest cost, the results are based on small, non-
random samples that cannot be projected to the entire market.
Focus group interviews are easy to set up but can be difficult to moderate and interpret; hence, easily misused.
Researchers may be misled by the seeming simplicity of the method. For example, in the problem analysis task of new-product research, respondents may not be able to perceive what problems they have with product use, or may be unable or unwilling to verbalize them.
Other limitations have been noted by various sources:
- Research findings are suggestive only; the investigation does not follow scientific methods.
- The method risks client misinterpretations of singular comments.
- Focus groups require trained moderators to generate useful data and to minimize biases in its observation and interpretation. Highly-skilled moderators are scarce.
The focus group interview is one of a number of effective qualitative research techniques that can be profitably employed to help marketing managers make better decisions. Its growing popularity reflects its adaptability to such decision areas as new product development, advertising campaigns, and evaluation of existing marketing strategies.
Organizations find that quick focus group interviews can provide insights that help bridge the gap between marketing management at the manufacturing level and the product end user. Focus groups can generate hypotheses in the preliminary stages of research, and help guide questionnaire construction, lessening the risk of addressing the wrong problem in the wrong manner.
Focus groups have a number of limitations. Poorly trained moderators can bias group results, or fail to uncover relevant information, a costly error if it misdirects later research. Many users caution against generalizing from focus group results to the entire market.
There are considerable differences of opinion about the appropriateness of focus group research in meeting different decision needs, on the need for respondent homogeneity, the skill requirements of moderators, and rules for determining the number of focus groups needed.
Applications to Small Business
Focus group interviews represent a practical research tool for a variety of smaller organizations. The new business establishing a consumer database may find focus group interviews helpful in gaining familiarity with its customers.
Nonprofit organizations in the service sector, such as community hospitals and public libraries, have successfully used focus groups of their patrons to elicit ideas and evaluate different aspects of their marketing programs.
The small business with little market research experience which faces tight funding should be aware that numerous organizations of all sizes now provide focus group research capabilities, often including complete physical facilities for con¬ducting interviews. Single focus group sessions may be produced for $2,500 to $3,500, including incentive payments to recruit participants.
Some smaller organizations have used focus groups as an inexpensive alternative to more expensive consumer surveys. These organizations should caution against relying on focus groups as conclusive data that reliably represent behavior of its market segments. As focus groups are not scientific, controlled research, validity of findings must always be questioned.