Advantages and disadvantages of focus groups
— October 5th, 2017
Today's market researcher has an embarrassment of tools available to them, yet one research option has stood the test of time - the focus group. Focus groups typically involve a moderator-led group discussion with between eight and 10 people. Group participants will likely have been chosen based on shared demographics, circumstances, buying behaviors. When it comes to delivering qualitative research, focus groups are widely considered by researchers to be one of the most effective tools in their arsenal. Like any tool though, there are advantages and disadvantages, and the focus group is no different.
Focus group advantages
A window into customers' heads
In-person focus groups allow an organization to gain valuable insight into how their customers think about various topics, products, services or the brand in general. A well-planned group discussion, led by a skilled moderator who creates as natural an environment as possible, gives organizations a window into their customers' heads. In a group setting, different opinions and perspectives will emerge, all of which combine to paint a detailed picture for an organization looking at launching a new product or a new website.
Focus group discussions lead to valuable output
The dynamics of the focus group can have a hugely positive influence on the quality of the research output. A good moderator will know how to conduct a focus group discussion with the goal of stimulating a spirited discussion among the participants. In some instances, these discussions can produce new thinking among participants which could result in a much more in-depth discussion. This kind of dynamic discussion also allows group participants to easily share their opinion, whether they are agreeing or disagreeing.
Organizations can see the research 'in action'
With focus groups, organizations have the opportunity to observe the group discussion from behind a one-way mirror. This offers a number of advantages, not least that they can hear and see the research first hand and the data is not diluted or misrepresented in a report. Crucially it also means that the organization can offer clarification or input during the discussion via the moderator, which could have a positive effect on the resulting information.
Data is gathered quickly
Because focus groups tend to involve up to 10 people, organizations can gather valuable insights from a cross-section of their market in just one 90-minute discussion. In an age where real-time is the new mecca and data moves at the speed of light, organizations need access to qualitative research faster than ever before. Competitive advantage relies on being ahead of the game, and focus groups give organizations the ability to gather insightful information faster than individual interviews or interpreting and analyzing thousands of survey responses.
Top Tips & Traps – Employee focus groups
Focus group disadvantages
We've seen how focus groups can deliver invaluable insights, but it's important to mention that their effects are largely determined by the moderator. A good focus group moderator will keep the group focused (the clue is in the name). With groups of people from different backgrounds and demographics, keeping people 'on a topic' can be challenging, and this is one of the main problems with focus groups. A weak moderator, who doesn't drive the conversation to make sure it covers all the required angles, can severely limit the output of a focus group.
Some voices are louder than others
In any group of people, there will be extroverts and introverts; people who are comfortable giving their opinion and those who are not. The goal of any focus group is to ensure that all voices are heard. In order to get valuable insights, it's also important that participants are reassured that what they say will be listened to and valued, and not ridiculed, dismissed or shouted down. This is where the moderator comes into play. They need to ensure they involve all participants in the discussion, perhaps asking shyer participants for their input directly. It might also be a good idea for the moderator to outline some 'housekeeping rules' at the beginning of the discussion, e.g. no speaking over someone else.
May not be representative of entire target market
Don't assume that your focus group represents a cross-section of the population. It's always going to be difficult to assemble a true societal representation, so bear that in mind when assessing the output as any agreement might only represent a small portion of your target market. It is better to use the output of a focus group to feed into supplementary research, rather than relying on the discussion as the main source of your information.
For sensitive topics, it can be hard to get honest insights
Naturally, there will be different types of focus group questions: general discussions about new products, services, initiatives; insights into customer service/engagement; and brand positioning. When discussing particularly sensitive topics, or products that may be of a sensitive nature, a group setting might not be suitable and a moderator may not be able to get any real useable information. In cases where you are dealing with topics of a delicate nature, you may get more honest insights from a confidential questionnaire or survey.
Internal communications measurement expert Angela Sinickas has extensive experience in conducting focus groups for employee engagement all over the world. You can learn and benefit from her expertise here in our Employee Focus Groups - Top Tips & Traps.