This article was written by Mark Dengler, President of Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) in Syracuse, NY. It was featured in a prior edition of RMS News.
Focus groups are a tried and true way to engage populations to learn in-depth information about opinions, perceptions, and experiences. They are a form of qualitative research that embraces group interaction to maximize participant responsiveness and allow for in-depth probing. Typically consisting of 4 to 12 people, a focus group utilizes a moderator to lead and interview participants as a group. The result is a great deal of perceptual information that can be used to validate, uncover or help direct further research.
To be successful, a focus group needs meaningful interaction. During a focus group, the moderator gets the respondents to interact with each other in a way that reveals additional information, so every other respondent can hear and respond to participant comments. The hallmark of the focus group is open-ended group interaction. Respondents can answer in their own words, rather than being forced to give yes or no, multiple choice, or numerical answers. More importantly, people are able to freely react to each others’ responses.
Stimulation is created by the excitement, group support, challenge, new ideas and other features of the interaction. It can provide strategic advantages that often mean the difference between the success or failure of a product or service. There is an almost irresistible pull to say things that they would ordinarily not reveal. Here are some types of interactions you may see in a well-run focus group:
- Reaction to each others’ comments
- Drawing each other out
- Asking questions you didn’t think to ask
- Building on each others’ ideas
- Sparking new ideas
- Jogging each others’ memories
- Modifying each others’ comments
- Filling in-completions and gaps in knowledge
- Nudging each other out of ruts and habitual thinking
- Taking opposing positions
- Persuading each other
- Changing their opinions
As a result of stimulation, you get more information from the group than you could possibly get from any amount of questioning of individuals.
Focus groups are often considered a luxury. People often think, “We don’t have time for that sort of research with our specific pressing problems, and we’re in touch with our customers anyway.” However, what your customers and prospects are telling each other may not be what they are telling you and, in today’s economy, you can’t afford to not know the correct customer perceptions. Your understanding of what the consumer wants must be crystal clear. A skilled focus group moderator can often uncover dissatisfaction and needs that may be deeply buried in a customer’s mind.
Focus groups, more than any other method, allow for the emergence and pursuit of surprise qualitative information. Agendas can be modified from group to group, and even within groups. Most market research begins with focus group research or some form of qualitative research and may often be followed up with quantitative survey work. Never underestimate or dismiss the immense value received from focus group research. This research modality provides a direct link into the perception and opinions of participants.