Recently we have been hearing the term “focus group” used to describe many different types of interactions—everything from a telephone call with a single customer to a 30-minute staff meeting over coffee. In the world of marketing research, a focus group is a defined as a qualitative tool to reach out to customers or potential customers. Let’s delve a little more deeply into how focus groups work and how they might be used to gather data for your needs.
Focus groups are a conversation with your current or potential customer. A typical focus group includes 10-12 participants gathered together in conversation for a 2-hour period. The session is led by a trained moderator who guides the discussion, ensures that all participants have a voice, and asks probing questions. Prior to the focus group a guide (sometimes called a moderator guide or discussion guide) is created to outline what questions will be asked and in what order. Participants in a focus group session are often incentivized for their time.
The advantage of a focus group is that it offers insights into behaviors, viewpoints, and motivations. They allow you to:
- Explore a potential new product or service offering.
- Test hypotheses about your customer profile.
- Better understand how to market a product effectively.
- Physically show a new product, logo, design idea, or packaging.
- Develop questions for use in a survey instrument.
- Hear stories directly from users about their experiences (both negative and positive).
Focus groups have been used over time and are a trusted way to gather data. However, the strength of using them comes in the process. Be sure to plan carefully for each phase of the process. At the outset, define your research goals, keeping in mind your outcomes. What information do you need to gather and how will it be used? If a strategic decision needs to be made, how can the conversation yield what you need to become more informed? When the discussion guide is created, construct it in an inverted pyramid so that each set of questions starts general and moves into specifics. Always use an unbiased, certified moderator who is skilled at asking the right questions in the right way.
Consider using focus groups when they are appropriate and match your research goals. There are other methods available, including in-depth interviews and usability testing, which may be more applicable. As your project develops, consider the focus group as one more tool to gather data, help save you time and money and, above all, make better business decisions.
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