Focus groups are perhaps the single, best-known marketing research technique. They use the dynamics of group interaction to generate qualitative (i.e., non-projectable) feedback on marketing-related issues, and to develop hypotheses for subsequent quantitative confirmation.
S&F routinely uses focus groups at multiple points in the marketing process among many different types of audiences. They are most typically used to (1) explore consumer attitudes, motivations, and buying behaviors for new or established products; (2) obtain preliminary reactions to new ideas, product (re)positionings, advertising, product (re)formulations, or packaging prior to additional screening or development work; (3) develop consumer language for ideas that will then be quantitatively tested; (4) internally generate (“brainstorm”) new ideas about a product or process issue; or (5) develop hypotheses about any other marketing issue.
Materials & Stimuli
Often, the primary stimulus for focus groups is something that participants never see – the moderator’s guide. The moderator’s guide is a “road map” in outline form that is used for the group discussion. It is not a question-answer document, but rather a flowchart for discussion areas. The exact sequence of topics often varies, depending on the purpose of the research. The guide typically reflects input from both moderator and client (usually MRD and Marketing, but often includes feedback from others, such as agency researchers or external consultants).
- For positioning and concept development, typically-used stimuli include benefit statements, “white card” concepts (with or without line drawings), or full concept boards (color visuals, headline, and body copy).
- When obtaining reactions to proposed advertising, the stimuli may include rough print ads, storyboards, animatics, “steal-o-matics”, or fully-produced print or on-air executions.
- In product development work, stimuli may include variations of a formula, product mock-ups, or R&D proto-types. Similar gradations of stimuli are used on packaging issues.
Focus Group Types
Focus groups can be broken down into two basic types: full groups, and mini-groups. Full groups consist of 8-10 respondents plus moderator, and last two hours. Full groups are well-suited for discussions that require extensive exploration of issues, that require input from many different perspectives, or when there are numerous stimuli to expose. In full groups, the relatively large number of respondents requires that the moderator be particularly skilled at managing many different personalities/points of view, and the ability to play respondents off against each other.
As the name implies, mini-groups are a scaled-back version of full groups, typically consisting of 4-6 respondents, plus a moderator. They are also shorter, lasting 1-1½ hours in length. Versus full groups, mini-groups are well-suited to topics that require more individualized lines of questioning (e.g., understanding motivations), for sensitive topics (e.g., personal hygiene), or when it is difficult to get respondents of the same type in a room together (e.g., industrial buyers).
Focus group (and mini-group) facilities have two adjoining rooms: a room where the group discussion takes place, and a viewing room. The viewing room is where the observers sit, typically in a tiered row arrangement, behind a one-way mirror. Focus group participants cannot see you, but you can see them. Groups are always audiotaped and are increasingly videotaped. Written transcripts of groups can also be made available if needs dictate (e.g., verbatim responses to specific questions areas, such as in copy development).
Common Focus Group Techniques
- Pen and paper exercises used to obtain initial reactions to questions or stimuli without the initial biasing effects of other respondents’ remarks.
- Associative/projective techniques to explore product imagery, by linking the product to people, places, or experiences (i.e., if this product were a car, what would it be?)
- Benefit linkage, in which respondents are asked to link their initially perceived “rational” benefits with the true emotional or psychological benefits.
- “What if” or “mental excursion” exercises, typically used in brainstorming sessions, to push the group discussion outside traditional lines of thinking.
Here are some simple tips for getting the most out of focus groups:
- Do at least two groups with the same audience to provide a starting point for hypothesis development. Also, consider conducting groups in at least two geographically-dispersed cities.
- Listen for patterns of response rather than specific one-time comments. Remember that focus groups are not projectable or representative of the market as a whole. They are simply a tool to develop hypotheses about marketplace dynamics.
Pros & Cons
Pros: Are a fast, direct feedback tool in a highly adaptable format. They are excellent vehicles for hypothesis development, and for getting upper management involved in the research process.
Cons: There is a very strong tendency to run with focus group findings, (especially when they are positive) and bypass subsequent quantitative verification.
Cycle time (excluding stimuli preparation) from field start to an initial presentation is typically several weeks, although this varies depending upon the number of groups, screening requirements, facility availability, etc.