The Basic Idea
Have you ever noticed that some people can better express their opinions when surrounded by others? For example, when Sam asks her brother John for his thoughts on a new restaurant in town, he simply responds with, “It’s fine.” But, when hanging out with friends later that week, Sam directs the same question to the group. This time, John takes the opportunity to voice his opinion, sharing a more detailed admiration for the exceptional service despite finding the overall dining experience less impressive.
Their other friends join in, sparking a lively discussion. The group dynamic encourages diverse opinions, debates, and agreements. As we can see, engaging in group discussion can bring forth a bunch of insights. This is the same idea behind focus groups, where individuals may feel more comfortable expressing a range of views and fostering new understandings.
Focus groups are group interviews where people share ideas and information for research. During focus groups, an interviewer or researcher will ask questions and often guide the conversation. Participants are encouraged to chat with each other, share stories and react to what others say. The idea is to bring out diverse perspectives and detailed insights.1
The interesting thing about focus groups is that they help people open up and express their thoughts better than they would in a one-on-one interview. It's especially useful when the questions are open-ended, and researchers are looking for real, in-their-own-words responses. Participants can come up with questions and focus on what matters to them, often taking the research to surprising new places.1
Focus groups also allow different forms of communication – people make jokes, argue, tell anecdotes, and go back and forth more naturally than in a formal one-on-one interview. As the interviewer or researcher, you get the whole picture of the topic or product you’re asking about.
However, these meetings are more than a casual discussion, and they aren’t as easy to perform as they seem – they must be methodical. To perform an effective focus group, you should:
1. Establish your objectives: What do you want to achieve?
2. Select your participants: they should target your market characteristics (demographics)
3. Prepare a topic guide: What questions should you ask? How long should the interview last?
4. Pick a moderator: They are in charge of it flowing smoothly. They should be skilled at guiding the group to expand upon or move on from a particular question or topic.
5. Perform the focus group: Select a convenient a comfortable place for the session.
6. Analyze the data: transcribe and find the common themes and topics throughout the session(s).
7. Report the findings.2
While more free-form than the traditional interview, the discussion mustn’t drift too far from the main objective of the research. Group facilitators or moderators should be able to let the conversation flow when appropriate, help participants return to the main point of their idea, or even provoke a little bit of debate. The discussion shouldn’t be so open that participants and moderators miss the point altogether, that’s where the “focus” comes in.
In other words, executing all the above steps could make your market or product research dynamic and truly attentive toward the opinions of users and customers.
Theory, meet practice
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Two-way focus group: This approach involves two focus groups. Group A has a “conventional” focus group session, and Group B observes Group A (for example, through a one-way mirror). This methodology usually enables Group B to delve into the reasoning behind Group A’s attitudes and thoughts. A common setup involves Group A consisting of product users and Group B of marketing analysts.3
Dual moderator focus group: A moderator has one of the most important and difficult roles, which is why this approach includes an additional referee. The lead moderator guides the conversation and encourages participation from all members, while the assistant moderator observes people’s body language and takes notes. This dynamic usually creates engaging sessions and an in-depth analysis from the moderators.3
Respondent moderator focus group: This approach allows a participant to act as a moderator for a portion of the session. Because this participant is still seen as part of the group, the peer-like environment offers unique insights from an insider’s perspective. It also provides a deeper understanding of group dynamics and reduces moderator/researcher bias. However, a trained moderator must be always present.3
Focus groups were introduced through communication studies to determine how movies and TV shows affected audiences, particularly focusing on aspects like social and moral values, mood, and political leanings. They were first performed by sociologists and researchers Robert K. Merton, Marjorie Fiske, and Patricia L. Kendall. Their approach was revolutionary as they went beyond basic questionnaires in search of in-depth knowledge of peoples’ attitudes and experiences.4
Their findings were quite valuable for Hollywood as production companies better understood the audience's reactions and could modify their projects to better suit their preferences and expectations. This study had such a big impact that it influenced marketing plans for future movies and TV shows.
Merton, Fiske and Kendall noticed that focus groups let participants have more control over the discussion, making the moderators' initial speculations or hypotheses less relevant or sometimes even wrong.4
The initial focus groups demonstrated how we could change the game in terms of researcher or confirmation bias. Having an interview approach that is open-ended and participant-driven reduces the moderator’s own biases to dominate. Authentic and diverse findings are produced which reduces the risk of confirmation bias.
Additionally, focus groups transformed market research by demonstrating that bringing a group of people together and encouraging open, guided discussions could produce deep insights into consumer behavior. It is now used in various industries beyond movies and TV shows.
Robert K. Merton
American sociologist known as a founding father of modern sociology and the mind behind focus groups. He was also the first to describe concepts such as “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role models.”6
Besides the original focus group on movies and TV shows, he conducted others that examined how campaign strategies during the 1940 US presidential election influenced people's voting decisions. Another study provided an analysis on the effects of mass media and the process of opinion leadership.7
However, Merton criticized and commented on the misuse of focus groups. He felt that politicians, handlers and marketers started to abuse this method. Specifically, he was concerned about their use for a quick insight into people’s opinions. Conducting these focus groups too quickly often resulted in marketing tactics and political strategies that missed the real story or data behind what participants expressed.6
Focus groups can be a great method for unlocking insights into human behavior and preferences, particularly regarding products or services. They are best used to uncover underlying attitudes and shine a light on the needs and expectations of users and customers. More than just data collectors, focus groups make participants feel heard, fostering a sense of community.
In these groups, participants are encouraged to ask their own questions and delve into how their experiences are similar or different from one another. This kind of self-directed exploration often uncovers insights that might be missed by more conventional research methods. They’re not just interviews; they offer a direct look into how people think and interact, which is invaluable for understanding consumer behavior in the market.
One of the greatest strengths of focus groups is their ability to surface thoughts and experiences that might be overlooked in one-on-one interviews. Group discussions bring different viewpoints to light, adding richness and depth. Ideas and opinions usually bounce off each other and contribute rich data.
Focus groups can also be useful when handling sensitive topics. They create a safe and open environment for discussing issues that might be awkward or complex, fostering honest and critical conversations. This openness is crucial for unearthing insights that might remain hidden in more formal research settings.
Focus groups are a powerhouse tool in market research, blending valuable data collection with the cultivation of meaningful interactions and community among users. Their ability to reveal deeper, often under-considered insights makes them indispensable in understanding and meeting consumer needs.
Focus groups are a widely used tool in market research and behavioral science, but they are not without their challenges. These issues can impact the quality and reliability of the findings and insights they generate.
1. Dominant Participants
This is quite a common issue in focus groups, you might even know someone in your daily life who can sometimes take over the entire direction of a conversation. The dominant participants usually influence the discussion and people’s opinions. Their strong voices and communication methods can overshadow quieter participants, leading to a biased understanding of the group’s overall perspective.
2. Peer Influence
As humans, we care about what other people say. Sometimes we even modify our behavior or opinions to match that of others who seem more knowledgeable or because we simply like their point of view. Usually, during a focus group, it’s quite difficult to avoid or know how many participants are being influenced by their peers. If this happens it can compromise the authenticity of the data collected and might not represent the independent opinions of each participant.
3. Moderation Skills
The two issues mentioned above can be recognized and managed by an experienced and adept moderator. They must be well-trained to “improvise” and know how to respond to various situations. They should ensure a balanced conversation, guiding quieter individuals to speak up and encouraging dominant participants to listen. Additionally, they should be able to maintain neutrality and avoid being influenced by their own attitudes, feelings, or expectations of the session/research.
Another issue is the surge in online consumer reviews, which are reshaping the landscape of market research and casting a shadow over traditional methods like focus groups. Online reviews offer instant access, real-time feedback, and a much wider audience and volume of data than focus groups. However, focus groups, with their depth of discussion and nuanced exploration, still hold their ground in certain areas. Some examples are:
- New products or ideas
- Complex consumer behaviours and motivations that require follow-ups
- When emotion and culture are quite relevant
- Detailed feedback on specific products
- Sensitive topics
- When you only want to consider your target audience
While focus groups are a valuable method for gathering product and market data, their effectiveness is highly dependent on managing the group interaction, the skill of the moderator, and the format in which they are conducted. These factors must be carefully considered to ensure that focus groups provide reliable and meaningful insights.
Breaking the Mold: Disney's Journey to a New Kind of Princess
“Sofia the First,” a Disney Junior show introduced in 2013, was part of Disney’s strategy to redefine the image of a princess, moving away from the usual stereotypes. To ensure its new young audience would watch and enjoy the show, Disney performed focus groups with preschool and kindergarten students from schools in the Los Angeles area. Findings and insights from those focus groups were crucial for testing the show's character concepts and plot lines.8
Doing these focus groups even caused episode names to change. For example, an episode initially titled “Sofia’s First Slumber Party” was renamed “The Big Sleepover” as the Disney team discovered the young audience wasn’t really familiar with the term “slumber party”.8
Additionally, the show aimed to address themes such as peer pressure and free will. However, during focus groups, they discovered that their young audience immediately understood what peer pressure was, but needed a bit more help on the theme of free will. This insight led the executives to refine and clarify the theme for better comprehension.8
These focus groups aren't just about testing content; they're also a critical component in Disney's marketing and product development strategy. By involving children in the creation process, Disney gains valuable insights that inform not only the storytelling but also potential merchandising and branding strategies.
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- Pope, C., & Mays, N. (2006). Qualitative research in health care (3rd ed.).
- Blackwell Publishing.LinkedIn. (n.d.). How do you use focus groups to test new products & services? Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/advice/0/how-do-you-use-focus-groups-test-new-products-services
- Fauvelle, L. (2021, April 2). What are the different types of focus groups? IntoTheMinds. Retrieved from https://www.intotheminds.com/blog/en/types-focus-groups/
- Stycos, J. M. (1957). The focused interview. By Robert K. Merton, Marjorie Fiske, and Patrica L. Kendall. Social Forces, 35(4), 387–388. doi:10.2307/2573808
- Merton, R. K., Fiske, M., & Kendall, P. L. (n.d.). The Focused Interview. Retrieved from https://www.milbank.org/wp-content/uploads/mq/volume-35/issue-01/35-1-The-Focused-Interview-by-Robert-K.-Merton-Marjorie-Fiske-and-Patricia-L.-Kendall.pdf
- Martin, D. (2003, February 24). Robert K. Merton, Versatile Sociologist and Father of the Focus Group, Dies at 92. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/24/nyregion/robert-k-merton-versatile-sociologist-and-father-of-the-focus-group-dies-at-92.html
- Columbia College Today. (2003, May). Robert K. Merton: A Laureate's Legacy. Retrieved from https://www.college.columbia.edu/cct_archive/may03/quads11.html
- Global Marketing Professor. (2023). Disney’s Marketing Intelligence: Sofia The First. Retrieved from https://globalmarketingprofessor.com/disneys-marketing-intelligence-sofia-the-first/"