Focus Group Research -
Why The Traditional Research Methodology Works So Effectively
And Why It Deserves to be the Most Respected of All Qualitative Research Tools
(Published in Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, June 2003)
Marketing research personnel in the current business environment have more research options available to them than ever before. Whether the decision is to use quantitative or qualitative methodologies, there are constantly new approaches being introduced that seek to generate market share by claiming to provide unique benefits not offered by any existing technique.
Within the qualitative research community this is particularly true, as there is so much emphasis on being able to explain the dynamics of consumer behavior, rather than just reporting “after the fact” what has happened, as is the normal situation with quantitative research. Further, different qualitative research approaches seem to go through popularity cycles, rising and falling based on the amount of publicity the methodology seems to get and the support it receives from various influential companies in the marketing community. We have seen individual in-depth interviews rise and fall in popularity, motivational research rise, fall and then rise again, and recently there has been a resurgence of ethnography as an important tool in the qualitative research arsenal.
One technique that seems to have maintained a relatively constant, and perhaps growing posture over the past 10-15 years has been focus groups. This methodology has evolved greatly from its beginnings during WWII when citizens were exposed to propaganda advertising in small groups, and even during the 1960's and 70's when groups were held in the living rooms of suburban America. However, the success of the traditional focus group has led to it being copied, thus giving birth to the telephone focus group, the Internet focus group and even the video conference focus group.
All of these qualitative tools are constantly marketed against the traditional focus group, which most marketing professionals consider to be the gold standard in the qualitative research field. While some of the available techniques may have advantages versus the traditional focus group, it is the intent of this article to outline the key factors that make traditional focus groups the effective tool that it has been for years, and importantly, why it is a superior methodology to all other qualitative methods for virtually every research need.
A traditional focus group consists of a 90-120 minute discussion among 8-10 individuals, who have been selected based upon having predetermined common characteristics (i.e., buying behavior, age, income, family composition, etc.), which is led by a trained moderator who conducts the session in a room with a one-way mirror using an interview guide that has been developed jointly by the client organization and the moderator.
A mini-group is essentially the same as a traditional focus group except it generally will consist of 4-6 participants...and often will be somewhat shorter than 90 minutes in length.
An Internet focus group is conducted entirely on the Internet, with participants recruited on line and brought together to participate under the direction of a moderator at the same time. All communication in the Internet focus group is implemented by the individuals typing responses to the moderator or the other participants. The number of people participating in these groups ranges from 5 to 15. Participants can be in any location to participate.
Telephone focus groups consist of a simultaneous conference call among 5-10 people that is monitored by a moderator who is charged with directing the discussion among the participants.
Participants can be in any location to participate in telephone focus groups.
Individual in-depth interviews (IDI’s) are generally interviews lasting 30-60 minutes conducted by a moderator in a focus group facility with only one participant. Often there is a one-way mirror and observers watching the session. Occasionally IDI’s are conducted at a client’s office or a neutral location that might be more convenient for both parties.
Ethnography is the art and science of observing consumer behavior, and drawing conclusions based on the findings from these observations. This is typically conducted by a trained anthropologist or sociologist who attempts to draw conclusions about human behavior based on the actions of a limited number of people who are observed in a real world environment.
Why Traditional Focus Groups Work?
There are several very specific reasons why the focus group methodology is such an effective research technique. Most of them also serve to differentiate focus groups from the other qualitative methodologies and identify the strengths that this technique offers versus the alternative approaches to collecting qualitative research information. Specifically, this includes the following:
∙ The Authority Role Of The Moderator - An essential element of the focus group methodology is the authority role that the moderator has by virtue of the face-to-face involvement in guiding the discussion. A qualified moderator can ensure that each of the people in the group participates and interacts with the others, without any one individual attempting to dominate the discussion. Further, an experienced moderator can keep the group discussion on track so that none of the material that is intended to be covered is omitted.
This face-to-face involvement with the group participants does not exist with Internet or telephone focus groups, and therefore represents a major limitation of both techniques.
∙ The Ability Of Group Participants To Interact With Each Other - A key benefit of traditional focus groups is the group dynamics which occurs when the moderator stimulates discussion among the participants about a topic. This can often generate new thinking about a topic which will result in a much more in-depth discussion of the subject being covered. Importantly, it enables the people in the group to share their views whether agreeing or disagreeing, thus enabling all the key issues to surface.
This type of group dynamic can not develop when participants do not have “eyeball-to-eyeball” contact, and therefore it does not exist in either telephone or Internet focus groups. Further, it is not a potential output of IDI’s due to the one-to-one nature of the questioning of this methodology.
∙ The Dynamic Nature Of The Methodology - Most qualitative research methodologies are dynamic in nature, in that it is possible to modify the topics that are covered in the sessions before the fieldwork has been completed. For example, if one is conducting focus groups or IDI’s to evaluate reactions to a new product concept, it is standard practice to modify the concept statement as the research progresses based on the learning from the research, as the objective is to complete the research with the best possible statement. This cannot be accomplished with quantitative research, as these studies are normally executed using fixed questionnaires that are fielded at the one time and are not changed during the implementation process.
∙ The Ability To Involve The Client Personnel In The Research Process - A major strength of traditional focus group research is the capability to have client personnel watch the sessions from behind a one-way mirror. This is very important in that the client has the opportunity to actually see the research happen, which makes the findings more believable. Further, it provides the client with the opportunity to provide inputs to the moderator during the groups, that might change the direction of the questioning, which could help improve the overall quality of the output.
It is not possible for clients to have this level of involvement in either Internet or telephone focus groups due to the lack of any central place to watch the participants. While it is possible to observe most one-on-one interviews (i.e., those conducted in facilities with one-way mirrors), it is often very difficult for management to allocate sufficient time to watch enough IDI’s to be meaningful due to the vast amount of time that would be needed to have some critical observation mass in an IDI project... particularly when it is possible to observe 20 people in four hours of focus group sessions.
∙ The Capability To Utilize Non-Verbal Behavior As A Research Input - An experienced and well schooled focus group moderator will utilize non-verbal inputs as an important part of the information that is collected during a traditional focus group session. These signals will help the moderator determine how to most effectively utilize the individuals in the group to maximize the effectiveness of the discussion, but they also will provide another dimension as to the general receptivity of the topic being discussed with the participants. It is impossible to use any non-verbal inputs with either telephone or Internet focus group research.
∙ The Level Of Participant Involvement In The Research - One of the benefits of traditional focus groups is that the moderator can be assured that each of the participants is giving virtually 100% attention to the subject matter throughout the 90-120 minute session. With telephone or Internet focus groups, there is no way to tell how involved the participants really are, as they could easily be doing other things (i.e., working on the computer, watching television, writing, etc.) while “participating” in the session. This would result in a much lower level of involvement for these people, which would probably manifest itself in less quality inputs about the topics being discussed.
∙ The Greater Security Associated With Traditional Focus Group Research - Another important benefit of traditional focus groups is the ability to screen each of the participants with photo id’s so you know who is included in the session. With both telephone and Internet focus groups this is impossible to do. Further, there is no way to know if there are other people (i.e., your competition) observing the research while the individual in the telephone or Internet study is participating.
The Criticisms Of Traditional Focus Groups
The following represent the most frequently mentioned criticisms of the traditional focus group technique, which are normally promoted by individuals seeking to use other qualitative methodologies or quantitative research. While focus groups are not the optimal technique for all research situations, the discussion which follows will address the principal concerns that are raised relative to this methodology.
∙ Focus Groups Tend To Become Influenced By One or Two Dominant People In The Session Thus Making the Output Very Biased - This definitely is a major potential limitation of the focus group technique if the session is led by an inexperienced and/or poorly trained moderator. However, a good moderator has been trained to know how to handle different types of personalities so they do not have the opportunity to influence the rest of the participants.
∙ Focus Groups Are Not As Effective As IDI’s In Dealing With Sensitive Topics - There are many researchers who shy away from using groups when addressing very difficult or sensitive topics for fear that participants will not share their real feelings with the group. However, there also is an equally large group of researchers who have found that when handled properly, there is a feeling of safety in numbers, and that people are often more willing to share more personal details when they recognize that the others in the room are in the same situation. Often, the most sensitive topics can become very easy to discuss when participants recognize that all have the same problem in common, and that the goal of the group is to talk about various aspects of their situation in order to find a viable solution.
∙ Focus Group Output Is Not Projectable - This is the most common criticism of the group methodology among proponents of quantitative research, as they seek to implement research to which the results can be subjected to statistical measurements which provide a level of comfort as to the validity of the data. While it is a truism that focus group findings can not be projectable in the same way as quantitative study findings can be, qualitative researchers do find that if they identify a great deal of consistency in the results from a series of focus groups, it is very likely that the outputs from these sessions probably is representative of the larger universe which they represent. This is often proven by conducting additional groups, which further confirm the findings from the earlier sessions, without providing any new learning.
∙ Focus Groups Are A Very Artificial Environment Which Can Influence The Responses That Are Generated - This is frequently the argument that ethnographers will use when recommending their methodology versus focus groups. In many situations, there may be a valid reason to use an ethnographic technique rather than focus groups, but it should not be because one is an artificial environment and the other is not. While a key building block of the ethnographic methodology is observation in a “real world” environment, it is important to recognize that a major weakness of this approach is that people who are being observed often will act differently than when they are not. This is because formal observation of us in our daily life (including photos, videos, note taking, etc.) is NOT a natural occurrence, and creates an artificial situation for the subject that must affect the way he or she will behave.
∙ Traditional Focus Groups Are Normally Held In Only A Few Different Cities, And Therefore Could Not Reflect The Inputs Of The Larger Universe - This is often an argument used by proponents of Internet or telephone focus group methodologies, both of which can be organized to be much more representative of the total universe than would be a traditional focus group project. It is a valid criticism of the traditional focus group assignment, however, most marketing people are not troubled by this issue. If they feel it is important to represent smaller markets in a study, groups can be conducted in these areas. Further, if it is essential to have a more heterogeneous population group than one traditionally gets with normal focus groups, it is possible to conduct sessions at conventions, vacation locations or other areas which draw people from many different parts of the country, thus providing the degree of representation that would be required.
Summary - Marketing research is as much of an art as it is a science, particularly when dealing with the qualitative methodologies. In most cases, there is no absolute right or wrong way to conduct a qualitative research study to address a situation needing analysis. Often, the selection of methodology requires the researcher to be familiar with all the options available, and then to choose the approach that will best fit the need of the assignment in light of the objectives which have been established, the strengths and limitations of the various techniques that are available and the budget constraints which have been determined. New methods are being introduced all the time, each of which seeks to generate a share of market based on a unique capability or insight which it claims to provide. It is very tempting for the researcher to try the new techniques in the hope that they will provide a breakthrough that has not been available in qualitative research before.
However, we feel there is a reason why the traditional focus group has continued to be the “gold standard” against which all other qualitative methodologies are measured. It represents a proven and tested technique, which when implemented by a trained and experienced moderator, has extremely broad application across a wide range of research issues. It has stood the test of time because it works, and it makes both economic and business sense. Hopefully, this article has helped to explain why traditional focus groups deserve to be the king of the qualitative research jungle.