In-depth Customer Insights with Focus Group Discussions

The qualitative research process for in-depth insights

Do You have a new product or concept that you want to test on potential customers? They should provide specific and in-depth responses to point the way

Perhaps you want to maximise the impact of your advertising and promotional campaign by obtaining detailed feedback from your target customers. Or you may require exploratory but in depth ideas to guide marketing surveys so as to collect data in the right areas.

You approach a marketing research agency with your problems and objectives and you're told you need to conduct a few focus group discussions. You may have heard of them but what are they? How are a few persons' views going to reflect those of your estimated 200,000 potential customers?

Imagine a group of eight potential customers gathered around a table in a cosy meeting room with subdued lighting. There are glasses of fruit juice and cakes for the participants. Informally but skillfully guided by a moderator or facilitator, your potential customers reveal some of the areas you should look into in order to make them your actual customers.

The scene described is a typical setting of a focus group discussion (FGD), a term which suggests the following characteristics:

  1. Crux of the matter. The discussions centre on a specific subject area so as to facilitate in-depth responses. Unlike questionnaire guided interviews in which elaborations on questions are not frequently possible, FGDs allow respondents to delve into their motivations, emotions, needs, and expectations.
  2. Two heads are better than one. The proceedings occur in a group format but is more than merely conducting individual interviews together. Interaction among participants is a key strength of the technique. Among other advantages, group members get to hear responses which in turn may help recall and stimulate new ideas and perspectives.

The qualitative research process involving focus groups may be described in 6 stages as follows:

Stage 1: Establishing Research Objectives and Design

Based on your marketing objectives, the agency would identify the research objectives and define the research design. If there is a need to conduct FGDS, the number of groups and the profile of each group's participants would be specified.

At the outset, the research agency should also remind the research user of ethical considerations involved in using focus groups. Consent from participants is required when only audio taping is done.

There are even greater ethical and methodological dilemmas when video taping is required. For example, informing participants that they are being video-taped at-the start of the discussion may influence the expression of their views significantly. On the other hand, revealing to participants that they were video-taped at the end of the session may infuriate some of them.

Stage 2: Recruitment

Getting the right members for the group is crucial given the small sample sizes. Not only must they be of a specific profile, respondents have to be reasonably articulate to be able to freely and clearly express their thoughts and opinions. They must also be comfortable interacting with fellow participants and the moderator who are strangers to them.

Research agencies typically employ a network of recruiters who are given partial knowledge of the requirements to recommend participants. Multi-stage screening is employed to help ensure that the right members are selected. Group member selection is therefore not unlike "head-hunting" employees for the right fit.

Research agencies normally avoid recruiting certain types of participants. Persons from the client's competitor companies and related industries (for example, advertising agencies) are naturally excluded. So are those who have attended focus groups since they have a greater tendency to behave like "experts" and may want to dominate proceedings.

Stage 3: Conducting Focus Groups

Having a friendly and relaxed setting with a sense of informality conveyed by pastry and drinks help participants to settle down more quickly. A neutral and informal location, be it the research agency's FGD room or a hotel seminar room, is thus important. Warmth and sensitivity from the moderator also facilitate developing group interaction since there are only about 1.5 hours to achieve the research objectives.

Skilled moderation is required to elicit open, indepth and yet clearly interpretable responses that provide solutions to marketing problems. A challenge that constantly faces marketing researchers is the obtaining of information that respondents are not inclined to reveal. For example, it is difficult to elicit information of a personal or sensitive nature or where criticism is required.

It becomes all the more difficult if there are participants who want to dominate discussions, have the tendency to stray away from the topic, express hostility towards opposing views, 'freeze up" in the face of imposing views, get bored and drift away, etc. A skilled qualitative researcher has to be like a group therapist who maintains an equilibrium in group harmony so that open responses may be forthcoming.

Qualitative researchers regularly borrow a number of techniques from psychology to elicit attitudes, needs, and emotions that may not be revealed even when consciously probed. Common methods include word association, story-telling and sentence completion. Considerable skill is naturally required in the use of these techniques as well as in the interpretation of the responses.

Audio- and video-taped discussions help in accurate report analysis. Video-taping is essential because of the need to review the wealth of responses including facial and body expressions which are difficult for the moderator to note or remember.

Stage 4: Analysis and Report Preparation

The moderator may assess the discussions with the research team. Interpretation from more than one researcher helps to reduce individual subjectivity which can be a problem in qualitative research. Report preparation is done with the research objectives in mind in order that directly relevant marketing solutions may be generated.

Stage 5: Presentation of Key Findings

The research agency presents the key findings to the client and submits a written report. If the client's needs are served by the focus groups only, for example, generating ideas, brand names, and in-depth feedback to advertising materials, then marketing decisions can be made quickly. Often, if the findings and recommendations are "actionable", the client can make decisions such as whether the advertising campaign materials can be used with minor modifications or whether a return to the drawing board is necessary.

If, however, hypotheses or untested explanatory ideas generated by the focus groups have to be tested on a larger and more representative sample of 200,000 potential customers, then the next step is further research.

Stage 5: Further Research

Sometimes the findings may reveal that further areas need to be probed and more focus groups may have to be organised to study them. Or questions could be raised that required secondary data research to supplement the findings.

More frequently, ideas and assumptions need to be tested by quantitative research. For example, several focus group participants revealed that they would be willing to try the product if it had smaller packaging so that it could be more easily carried in handbags. Before introducing a new pack size to the product range at considerable expense, you would want to test this idea.

The research agency would design a quantitative survey with a more representative sample ranging from a few hundred to several thousands, depending on the total number of target respondents or your population. The survey would ascertain, among other things, the potential customers' preferred product sizes.

Focus groups are arguably the most widely used qualitative research technique. Awareness of its strengths and limitations are important to the research user so that there would not be undue expectations.

The user should be able to interpret qualitative finds with an informed perspective, for example, bearing in mind that the sample sizes involved may be inadequate if the objective is to generalise findings to large populations. Marketing professionals can then effectively utilise the right research techniques to achieve the marketing objectives.

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