Five Questions To Ask Before You Do Focus Groups

March 9, 2010

In the last few months, I have received a lot of requests to moderate customer focus groups for a variety of clients.  I am thrilled to provide the service as customer research is one of my favorite aspects of marketing.  Interestingly, I am not the only one who feels this way.  Many marketers enjoy research, especially qualitative research such as focus groups, for a variety of reasons.  These include:

  • Marketers get to leave the office and their “desk job” for a few days to view the groups
  • Marketers get the opportunity to listen to their customers talk about their brands and products
  • Marketers may receive research results quickly (they are viewing the research real-time)
  • Focus groups can be perceived as a less expensive method of research compared to other types of studies.

Unfortunately, these factors can sometimes lead marketers to “overuse” focus groups and execute them when they aren’t the appropriate tool for answering marketers’ questions.

To help my clients assess if focus groups are the correct method of research for their needs, and to ensure that the research is designed and executed most effectively, I ask my clients a series of questions at the start of each project.  My hope is that these questions are helpful to any marketing or research manager who is seeking customer insights through qualitative research.

  1. Are you trying to count something or are you looking to explore something? If you want a count, then do not do focus groups.  Focus groups are designed to help you understand how your customers think and make decisions.  Focus groups can provide ideas and feedback, but they cannot be used to provide a definite, statistically significant answer.  To take this a step further, often it is assumed that if a focus group contains eight respondents, you have a sample size of eight.  In actuality, due to group dynamics, a group of eight people is only a sample size of one (the group is the unit of measurement).
  2. What decisions will be made with the information from the research? It is very important to know how your information will be used.  For instance, if the information will be used to make a go/no go decision on a significant investment, you may want to consider if an unquantifiable technique is really the right tool.  Additionally, knowing what decisions will be made will guide the questions that must be answered in the research (see #3).
  3. What are the questions that you must answer? There should be about three to six specific questions that the research should be designed to answer.  These are the research objectives.  The marketers and researchers included in the research must be very clear on what these questions are.  If these questions are not specified in advance, it will be sheer luck if the research uncovers the answers.  An additional note:  if in a focus group there are more than six objectives, you likely have too many things you are trying to accomplish (and therefore you run the risk of not accomplishing everything adequately).  If you have more than six objectives, you should consider doing more than one set of focus groups.
  4. What do we think the answers to these questions are? Scientists test hypotheses in their research.  Marketers should do the same.  If you have a hypothesis for the answer to each research question, this will help the moderator turn to probing on why an answer in a focus group might be different from what you hypothesized.  By enabling the moderator to focus probing on why an answer is different, you will get much richer, insightful information from your groups.  With that said, once you form your hypotheses, be mindful to listen objectively to the research.  It can be tempting to selectively listen only for evidence that supports your hypotheses.  Make an effort to listen to and absorb all of the information that your focus groups provide, whether it supports your hypotheses or not.
  5. Who is the target respondent? The usefulness of focus groups is significantly dependent on the respondents who are participating.  If the group does not contain the correct target respondents, the results from the groups can be essentially meaningless.  For any focus group you consider doing, think carefully about who you need in the groups to answer the questions.  Too many times, marketers make the mistake of simply asking for their standard customer demographic target to be present in the groups – but perhaps they need something more, such as current non-category users or lapsed users of the brand.  Think very carefully about the questions you are trying to answer and who are the right people that you need to hear from to answer these questions.  Do not assume that your target respondent is just your target customer demographic.  It is likely that your target respondent is more than just that.

Those are the questions I like to focus on before initiating qualitative research for clients.  I would like to think that many marketers also ask themselves these questions before they start a qualitative project.  However, I think it is good to have this checklist handy for your next piece of research – just to make sure that your research will be as successful and as useful as possible.

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