Best Practice

Focus group research methods

Focus Groups are all around us in our modern world. Businesses use them to carry out constant data analysis to determine how people feel about their products or services. And ‘feel’ is the operative word here; we’re talking about a research method that is all about people’s subjective opinion and experience.

Yet the origins of the focus group can arguably be traced right back to famed Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. An acolyte of Freud’s teachings, Ernest Dichter, schooled in the belief that people are often motivated by unconscious, irrational and often visceral desireswas one of the early pioneers of a much more qualitative approach. Instead of counting how many times a group carries out a task, his aim was to delve below the mere act and, through talking with participants, tease out precisely what it was that motivated people to buy one brand over another, or just about anything else involving making choices.

Bean counting is not enough

At one time it was all about quantity over quality. The common research method involved logging how many of one thing took place over another. Yet, this failed to give a qualitative sense of what was motivating those choices in the mind of the consumer. This is where the Focus Group began to find favor within the marketing departments of myriad companies and latterly political parties. One of the earliest examples was the Betty Crocker cake mix conundrum. 1950s US housewives liked the idea of a ready to bake cake mix, but it wasn’t selling. Enter Ernest Dichter and one of the earliest examples of consumer Focus Groups. Dichter — using what he called ‘motivational research’ — gleaned, from speaking to working housewives, that they felt a sense of emotional conflict in serving ready-made recipes. The solution: change the recipe so that the customer had to add an egg to the mix, thus gaining a sense of participation in the act of baking.

Focus group data wasn’t so much about counting how many people chose one product over another, it was much more about gaining subjective, sometimes unconscious, consumer attitudes to what motivates or inhibits certain actions. Ernest Dichter thus pioneered much of the practices on how to conduct a focus group that organizations use today.

In essence, the organizers of a focus group seek to pinpoint attitudes by interviewing small numbers of people. Participants are typically targeted because they have previously made choices relating to a product or service or those in its immediate competitive landscape. A focus group research example might be as simple as asking consumers why they chose a particular brand of well-known toothpaste over another, too much more subtle and nuanced discussions of people’s attitudes to a particular political party and its policies.

Yet, not all types of focus group discussion are equal. Where once a focus group would comprise a small cohort, perhaps of eight people, being interviewed around a table over a period of time, today modern methodology allows for online or teleconferenced approaches. Clearly focus group interview advantages and disadvantages come into play here. With the massive growth in online and telemarketing companies seeking to survey key groups as a service to business, attitudes towards participation have rapidly changed.  

This effectively brings the practice full circle, with a recognition that, for Focus Groups to continue to achieve meaningful contributions to market insights for business, a digital/online solution is but one part of a much broader range of tools (interview techniques and environment, visual aids and facilitator led discussions being a few others) that companies should utilise… including the ‘traditional’ round table Q&A championed in the 1950s.

What remains clear is this: as long as there is competition for customer attention, there will always be a need to delve a little deeper than quantitative data can deliver. This is where the Focus Group reigns supreme. In its methods and application, the Focus Group has created an invaluable resource for reaching below the surface, to divine just what motivates our unspoken, often unconscious, needs wants and desires.


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