What Is A Focus Group?
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What Is A Focus Group? Get Unique Insights & Solutions

Every successful business knows what their customers want, and focus groups can be an effective way to get this information. They are a proven customer research technique that provide insight into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about particular topics, which you can use to improve various aspects of your business.

In this article, we explain what a focus group is, when they are a suitable customer research technique, and how to set them up to start gaining valuable insights.

What is a focus group?

what is a focus group

A focus group is a qualitative, exploratory customer research technique where small groups of people discuss relevant questions. The goal is to learn people’s opinions, motivations, and general thoughts around certain useful topics, like how they feel about energy efficiency, or what they think about a company’s branding.

Often, focus groups are used as a confirmatory research method, which aims to confirm or refute an existing hypothesis. For example, marketers for a food manufacturer might suspect that their target customers are becoming more conscious of their health, and want to validate this idea. They create a focus group with people that share similar characteristics to their buyer personas, and then ask them a series of open-ended questions about what influences their food choices, and how they try to stay healthy. The answers and conversations that are created will help to confirm or refute the hypothesis, and allow them to change their business strategy accordingly.

Focus groups can also be exploratory, designed to gather useful feedback on a topic without having a hypothesis in mind. A business might want to learn which types of marketing their customers prefer to receive, what they think of the company’s sales process, or their biggest gripes when buying a product from their industry. They are suited to any situation where you want to receive open, long-form information about something that is important to your business, such as:

  • What people think about your products or services
  • What they think about your brand
  • Their opinions on particular social topics that affect your business
  • How they buy from your company
  • What their needs are. Focus groups can be a great way to identify your customers’ needs (alongside other methods)
  • What makes them satisfied or dissatisfied with a company in your industry

There are many different types of focus groups, but one of the most common is the “dual-moderator” format. This uses two facilitators: one to ask the pre-set questions and encourage discussion among the group, and one to record people’s answers and observe their behaviour. This format helps to fulfil the two key requirements for a focus group: a skilled facilitator who keeps conversation flowing and on track, and a facilitator to accurately record and assess how people are reacting (a video camera helps with this too). There’s lots of valuable social feedback during a focus group, and the second facilitator is required to catch all of it. This feedback includes:

  • People’s answers to questions
  • People’s conversations with each other, which are encouraged and naturally result from the questions asked.
  • People’s body language
  • People’s tone of voice

The lead facilitator must be friendly enough to encourage conversation, assertive enough to keep conversions on topic, and impartial enough not to influence people’s opinions. They should also intuitively know when to move onto the next question, to get through as much as possible while not stifling people at the same time. Focus groups can take on a life of their own—a fantastic thing provided conversation stays within the scope of the research. People shouldn’t chat about the weekend’s football scores.

Selecting the right people for a focus group is crucial. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll want to select people that share:

  • Similar characteristics to your buyer personas—this group of people will be able to offer relevant, accurate information on how you can improve certain aspects of your business.
  • Characteristics or knowledge that gives weight to their opinions—if you’re trying to find out how young people use social media, you won’t get useful information from people who are over 50. Make sure that the people you invite to the focus group have the right characteristics, demographics, or knowledge to provide you with valuable feedback.

Focus groups can be used alongside other customer research techniques like interviews and surveys, which give you a combination of qualitative and quantitative data. If you’re purely looking for dichotomous yes/no answers, surveys are a better option. Focus groups are also considered a less “accurate” form of customer research because you’re talking to a limited number of people (usually 6 to 10 people per group, with 2 or 3 different groups/sessions). While you can gain incredibly useful insights, the sample is still statistically small.

Other downsides to focus groups:

  • They can be expensive—you’ll need to pay people for their time, and may also need to hire a trained facilitator. A suitable venue might cost too. Some companies run focus groups because they want to “tick a box,”—be cautious of this attitude because they can be pricey. Complete the focus group for the right reasons.
  • Hard to get honest answers—if you’re discussing a controversial social issue, it can be hard to get honest answers because people want to portray a certain image, a phenomenon known as social desirability bias.
  • Group dynamics—other group dynamic issues like groupthink introduce bias into your results, which you’ll need to be aware of, and try to mitigate.

How to set up and run a focus group

If you’ve decided that a focus group fits your requirements, and you have the budget to run them, here’s an overview of how to set them up for your company.

1. Decide your goals

Before you do anything, you need valid business reasons for running your focus groups. What are you trying to achieve exactly? Write down your goals for the exercise, and consider whether focus groups are the right type of research to undertake. If you’re trying to confirm a hypothesis, get people’s thoughts and opinions on important topics, or gather directional information that helps to uncover new questions, a focus group could be the right choice.

2. Find participants

Find enough participants for 2 to 3 sessions, and 6 to 10 people per group. That’s between 12 to 30 different people in total. The reason you need to run a number of different sessions is to gain enough variety to sufficiently cover your topics. You can certainly get good insights from a single session, but your information won’t be “rounded out,” and you may reach false conclusions as a result.

Here are some places you can source people:

  • Your own customers
  • Your social followers or email subscribers
  • Recruiting companies who specialise in this kind of thing

Make sure that the people you find are suited to your focus group’s purpose. This usually means that they have characteristics that match one or more of your buyer personas.

You’ll need to let people know how and why the research is being completed, so they can give their informed consent as part of a form. If you’re planning on recording the session, you’ll also need their permission, which should be given in a release form.

3. Arrange a venue

Find a venue that is comfortable, quiet, and has enough seating for everyone. Your company’s office is usually the best place for this, provided it has a private space where you won’t be disturbed.

4. Create your questions

Create open-ended questions that get at the heart of what you’re trying to understand. If you’re trying to get your customers’ opinions on the use of plastics, you can start with a simple question like “what are your thoughts on plastic usage for products?” If the responses are negative, you could follow up with questions like “what would make plastic usage more acceptable to you?” or “what alternatives could be used in place of plastic products?” Be sure to write down a wide variety of questions that can give you the information you’re looking for.

Try to avoid leading questions that guide people to a specific answer. “What would make plastic usage acceptable” would be a leading question if it was asked off the bat, because it assumes that people find plastic usage unacceptable. Instead, your first questions should be neutral and unbiased so that you influence the outcome as little as possible.

For the end of the session, it’s good to ask an exit question like “is there anything else you’d like to discuss relating to [your topic]?” as this gives people a chance to speak up when they couldn’t earlier.

5. Run the session

A focus group session should be as relaxed and enjoyable as possible, to encourage people to speak. You’ll need a comfortable, quiet space with plenty of room, tea, coffee, and some small snacks for people, and a facilitator who is friendly and assertive. You can try facilitating yourself, but you might want to consider getting some training beforehand because it requires a deft hand. Otherwise, you can hire professional facilitators to run the session for you.

To start, introduce yourself and summarise the reason for the research. Then go around the room with an icebreaker question like “what have been the best and worst things to happen to you this week?” This loosens people up and encourages conversation. Then you can dive into your first question.

During discussion, try to keep response times equal between people. Some people are naturally more dominant, so try directing questions at quieter participants, or asking for their opinion directly on what is being discussed. If there are awkward silences, don’t jump into them to avoid embarrassment, as they eventually encourage people to talk (within reason, nobody wants to experience a 30-second awkward silence).

As you facilitate, try to stay neutral with your responses, tone, and body language. Active listening is a technique that works well because it makes people feel like they’re really being listened to, which helps to stimulate conversation.

The session should ideally run between 1 to 1.5 hours, which is the attention-span limit for most people. Of course, it can go for longer if conversation is flowing nicely and people are enjoying themselves.

6. Analyse the results

When the session is over and you have tons of qualitative data, it’s time to transcribe and organise. As you start to work through, you’ll notice common patterns and themes, which can be organised into specific codes that you create. Analysing qualitative data is a skill in itself, so we recommend reading more about it to ensure that your conclusions are sound, and to avoid pitfalls like confirmation biases.

Further reading

  1. Active Listening, VeryWell Mind
  2. Analysing qualitative data, NSW Government
  3. Selecting participants in a focus group, Sage Publications