A focus group is a marketing research tool in which a small group of people (typically eight to ten individuals) engages in a roundtable discussion of selected topics of interest in an informal setting. The focus group discussion is typically directed by a moderator who guides the discussion in order to obtain the group's opinions about or reactions to specific products or marketing-oriented issues, known as test concepts. While focus groups can provide marketing managers, product managers, and market researchers with a great deal of helpful information, their use as a research tool is limited in that it is difficult to measure the results objectively. In addition, the cost and logistical complexity of focus group research is freqently cited as a deterrent, especially for companies of smaller size. Nonetheless, many small businesses find focus groups to be useful means of staying close to consumers and their ever-changing attitudes and feelings. By providing qualitative information from well-defined target audiences, focus groups can aid businesses in decision making and in the development of marketing strategies and promotional campaigns.
Traditionally, focus groups have been used by makers of consumer products to gather qualitative data from target groups of consumers. They are often used in the new product development process, for example, to test consumer reaction to new product concepts and prototypes. Focus groups are also used to test marketing programs, as they can provide an indication of how consumers will react to specific advertising messages and other types of marketing communications. In this way, focus groups can help advertising and promotion managers position a particular product, service, or institution with respect to their target audience. Reactions to new types of product packaging can also be determined. In addition, many companies have used focus groups as a tool to learn more about consumer habits, product usage, and service expectations.
As focus groups increased in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, they were increasingly used to explore relatively narrow information niches. For example, pharmaceutical companies have convened focus groups consisting of medical professionals to test concepts related to new drug products. The legal profession has used focus groups to improve the quality of their cases. Nonprofit organizations have used focus groups to test fundraising campaigns. Focus groups have been used in industrial settings by business-to-business marketers. Some companies have even set up employee focus groups to learn more about employee motivation.
A key factor in determining the success of focus groups is the composition of the group in terms of the participants' age, gender, and product usage. Focus group participants are generally selected on the basis of their use, knowledge, attitudes, or feelings about the products, services, or other test concepts that are the subject of the focus group. In selecting participants, the objective is to find individuals who can knowledgeably discuss the topics at hand and provide quality output that meets the specified research objectives.
The most common method of selecting participants for focus groups is from some type of database that contains demographic, psychographic, and lifestyle information about a large number of consumers. Such databases are available from a variety of commercial vendors. A list of desired characteristics is drawn up and matched with the database to select participants for focus groups. These characteristics may include purchase behavior, attitudes, and demographic data such as age and gender. The goal is to select participants who would likely be in the target audience for the products, services, or concepts being tested.
There is no absolute ideal in terms of the number of participants, although eight to ten participants is the norm. Different moderators are comfortable with different sizes of focus groups, but most consultants en-courage companies to utilize groups in the eight-ten person range. Supporters of this size contend that these groups are large enough to provide a nice range of perspective and make it difficult for one or two individuals to dominate the discussion (moderators should guard against such developments). Groups that include more than ten participants, however, are usually more difficult for moderators to control. Group interaction is also more difficult, and moderators have a harder time stimulating discussion. In addition, it is often more difficult for a moderator to spend time following up on the insights voiced by one individual when there are a dozen or more participants.
Focus groups that are relatively homogeneous in terms of age, gender, and product usage generally work better than mixed groups. When it is desirable to obtain data from different age and gender groups, most experts recommend scheduling a series of focus groups using homogeneous participants. They claim that group dynamics tend to become inhibited in mixed-gender or age focus groups. In addition, specific topics can be explored in greater depth when there is homogeneity among the participants with regard to usage of or attitudes toward the products being tested.
Moderators play an important role in determining the success of focus groups. Well-trained moderators can provide a great deal of added value in terms of their past experience, skills, and techniques. On the other hand, poorly trained moderators are likely to fail to generate quality output from their focus groups. In addition to professional, full-time focus group moderators, other types of individuals who often serve as moderators include professional researchers, academicians, marketing consultants, psychologists or psychiatrists, and company representatives.
Focus group moderators serve as discussion leaders. They try to stimulate discussion while saying as little as possible. They are not interviewers. They usually work from a guide that provides them with an outlined plan of how the discussion should flow. The guide includes topics to be covered together with probing questions that can be used to stimulate further discussion. Moderators try to include everyone in the discussion. They allocate available time to make sure the required topics are covered. When the discussion digresses, it is up to the moderator to refocus the group on the topic at hand.
When setting up a focus group session, it is important to give careful consideration to the physical setting where it will take place. The location should be one that encourages relaxed participation and informal, spontaneous comments. The focus group facility must be of adequate size and have comfortable seating for all of the participants. Living room and conference room settings both provide good locations for focus groups, but public places—such as restaurants and auditoriums—are generally regarded as too distracting for gaining optimal results. In selecting a focus group site it is also important to make it geographically convenient for the participants. Locations that are hard to find or located in out of the way places may cause delays and scheduling problems. Finally, sites should be determined with an eye toward the schedules and locations of managers and executives who should be in attendance.
The facility should also be relatively soundproof, to minimize outside noises and distractions. While focus group sessions are almost always audiotaped and many are videotaped, client company representatives usually like to observe their focus groups first-hand. With this in mind, many focus group discussion areas are equipped with one-way mirrors that allow company representatives to observe without intruding. An alternative viewing arrangement would be to use a remote video hookup that would allow company representatives to view the proceedings on a video screen. Having company representatives in the same room as the focus group is the least desirable arrangement.
Once the facility, moderator, and participants have been selected, typical focus group sessions begin with an introduction. During the introductory part of the session the moderator welcomes the participants, informs them of what will take place during the session, and generally sets the stage for the discussion to follow. Prior to the main discussion there is usually a warm-up phase. The warm-up is designed to make the participants feel at ease. During the warm-up participants generally introduce themselves to the group. General topic discussions, usually related to the specific topics that will be covered later, also form part of the warm-up stage. These general discussions help participants focus their attention. They also provide the moderator with some insight into the different participants.
Gradually the moderator moves the level of discussion from general topics to more specific ones. The moderator may present different concepts for discussion. These include the test concepts for which the group was convened. The moderator may choose to use props to focus the group's attention. Typical props include product samples, actual or concept ads, concept statements that participants read together, photographs, and television commercials.
Once all of the test concepts have been discussed and evaluated by the group, the moderator moves the discussion into a wrap-up phase. During this phase the best concepts are identified and their strengths and weaknesses discussed. Participants may be asked to write down their reactions to what they have seen and discussed. During this final phase, any outstanding issues that were omitted are covered. When all of the substantive discussions have been completed, the moderator closes the session by thanking the participants and giving them any final instructions. Participants should leave with a positive feeling about the experience and the company, if the company that arranged the focus group has been identified. After the participants have left, it is standard practice for the moderator and the client company observers to have a post-group discussion.
Following the conclusion of the focus group or series of focus group sessions, the moderator may prepare a report for the client company. The report generally provides a written summary of the results of the session or sessions as interpreted by the moderator. Focus group reports may be summary in nature or more detailed. In some cases the client company may not require a written report.
ONLINE FOCUS GROUPS
One recent innovation in focus group research has been the emergence of online focus group sessions, which permit business owners and managers to directly observe group discussions without going to the time and expense of traveling to the locale in which the exercise is taking place. Using the Internet as a medium to conduct focus groups is a logical—and vastly superior—successor to videoconferencing. Videoconferencing enabled companies to conduct focus group research without incurring major business travel expenses. But equipment glitches, the logistical challenge of gathering observers at a central location, and the expense of purchasing and implementing this high-tech option made it a decidely imperfect vehicle. But as business writer Alf Nucifora observed, "the advent of video streaming technology now means that focus groups can be observed 'live' from the comfort of one's desk. …A camera captures all the actionclose-up … and broadcasts the action via video streaming to an unlimited number of viewers who can watch real-time from the comfort of their desktop computers at any time, in any place." The completed focus group session can then be saved in computer-readable form for future use.
Analysts cite online focus groups as a particularly exciting development for small business owners with limited resources. Business Week noted that traditional focus group research can take several months and a great deal of expense (as much as $100,000) to complete. But growing numbers of market research firms offer online focus group research services for less than $5,000 a session, the results of which can be studied and tabulated within a matter of weeks. Still, not all business ventures are equally suited to pursue this electronic alternative. "If your customers aren't tech-savvy, or if your product relies heavily on touch and taste, you may be wiser to foot the bill for a traditional group," counseled Business Week. "But if all you require is a quick glimpse into your customers' minds, an online group could be the way to go."