Focus Group discussion is a good way to get feedback before launching a
product or service.
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
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
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.
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.
Typically, focus groups comprise
eight to 10 respondents of a particular background, for instance, potential
users of a service with monthly salaries of between S$3,000 to S$5,000 who are
in the 30-40 years age group. The objective is often to explore views and
feedback relevant to the target group without being necessarily representative
due to the small sample sizes.
The ideas generated can then be
tested by quantitative surveys with larger and more representative samples.
Sometimes, research users may
simply require new ideas or insight from their target customers as they
fine-tune their advertising and promotional campaign, marketing concept, product
design and so on.
Let's discuss. The
participants interact to exchange views, perceptions and ideas on the topic of
interest among themselves as well as with the moderator. If made known to
prospective respondents that they are attending a "discussion"
rather than an "interview", they are less likely to be anxious and
thus more likely to be open and frank. An encouraging moderator who conveys
genuine interest in what the participants have to say is also important.
The qualitative research process
involving focus groups may be described in six stages.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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