Should Your Company Be Doing Focus Groups?

Focus groups are one of the few tactics in qualitative market research that could be said to have made it into the realm of pop culture. In TV, commercials parody focus group participants (seen the Chevrolet ones lately? Or how about the skits on Saturday Night Live?). In these contexts, focus groups are funny, but on a more serious note, focus groups are one of the best ways to understand people’s impressions of a brand or product.

Which presents the question:

Should you do focus groups for your company?

The answer? It depends. We’ll explain.

Do focus groups if … You’re testing out a concept

Do you work in  product development, are you starting a new business, or are you updating a current service or product? If yes, then focus groups are a great forum to test out the concept. In focus groups, the research company will recruit people within your target market and a few who identify as being slightly outside of the target. Group sizes are usually 3 or 4 groups of 8-10 people. The moderator will start off with some creative brainstorming exercises to get the juices flowing, and then facilitate a discussion about the product or concept you’re testing. You can test out concepts, such as:

  • Will your new business concept work? Let’s say you’re launching a nanny sharing service, and you want to understand if the smaller market you’re in will support the concept.
  • How will people use the new product or app? You can have them first use the app or product in their homes (which is tested through online and mobile qualitative tools), and then gather them back together for additional brainstorming and input.
  • How effective is your service? Perhaps you have a cloud-based accounting service, and you want to talk to small business owners/independent contractors to see how they currently do their accounting, if they would switch to a cloud-based format, and what types of features would be useful to them.

Do focus groups if … You’re testing out branding messages

Focus groups are an ideal way to test out ad concepts, branding messages, and even get input to develop new campaigns, such as TV commercials. With the various groups, you can do comparisons of the different concepts, test to see how people react to other brands’ commercials, and run concepts to see what gets a laugh out of the participants if you’re trying to develop a humor spot.

Do focus groups if … You’re needing some brainstorming

Let’s say that you have a product idea in place, but you want to better understand how people will use it in practice. In this case, focus groups are an amazing and highly effective way to get input from your target audience. If you’re developing a new website that allows people to rent clothes every month, find out how many pieces of clothing would be ideal, what price point people would be comfortable paying, how often they’d like for you to communicate with them with email updates, and what types of features your website should have to make the shopping experience seamless.

When NOT to do focus groups

As amazing as focus groups are, there is definitely a time and place for this type of methodology. Let’s say you’re trying to get input on a concept or service that is more confidential in nature (such as HR, financial services, or personal care products). For sensitive topics, you wouldn’t want to do focus groups. Or, perhaps your demographic is spread out throughout the country (or world), and it would be too logistically difficult to get everyone in the room at one time. For both of these instances mentioned above, in-depth interviews would be a better choice. In in-depth interviews, participants are interviewed over the phone, individually. Other methods you could use include:

  • Online and mobile qualitative panels (getting immediate feedback through apps and through online discussion boards)
  • In-home or office ethnographies (seeing how people use the product in a certain environment)
  • Blended approaches – pulling people in for in-depth interviews after they’ve completed a survey and volunteered to participate

Focus groups, and the methods discussed in this article, are truly the most effective way to accurately understand how people think, learn what motivates them, and figure out how and why they choose the products they do. In surveys and big data sets, you’re simply not going to get the same richness and depth of responses. If you choose to use focus groups to improve your product development and marketing, make sure you use a third-party neutral firm to help eliminate any internal bias, and to ensure that you’re having research done by experienced, soundly trained experts.

Tamara Irminger Underwood is a content specialist for InterQ, a qualitative marketing research company.

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