What are focus groups?

Focus groups are an exploratory marketing research strategy. They consist of a carefully curated batch of people, actively giving input on a product, service, or concept. A trained moderator usually leads it with a facilitated discussion. The purpose is to gauge customer perceptions and receiving insights and opinions.

The efficacy of this strategy lies in the massive amounts of qualitative data you can get in a short time. The data itself may consist of a wide range of opinions, ideas, and beliefs.

Focus group discussions also create a real-life dynamic of influence and interaction between brands and customers. This allows ideas to spark off in chain reactions open for more consideration or research. The moderator can also understand participants based on voice inflections, body language, and various other social cues that give more feasible results as to how said product, service, or concept will be received by the market.

Where focus groups began

The earliest report of focus groups dates back to 1937 at the Princeton University Office of Radio Research. Initially called “focused interviews,” the U.S government studies how Americans responded to propaganda films during World War II. They aimed to identify what messages were most effective in increasing support for the war. Psychologists conducting the research were asked to use focus interviews to identify the social and psychological effects of mass communication.

This was crucial to understanding which specific elements within scenes, production techniques, and so forth, were most effective. The psychologists saw great potential in the focus interviews and went on to develop a set of guidelines for their use, most of which are still applicable today.

In 1991, marketing and psychological expert Ernest Dichter coined the term “focus group.”
The term essentially meant supervised meetings held with a limited group of participants with the
objective of explorative discussion.

Types of focus groups

• Dual-moderator focus groups

In this method, there are two moderators, one ensures smooth execution while the other guarantees answers and creates an unbiased environment.

• Two-way focus groups

This method involves two separate groups having discussions at different times. One group listens to the other and observes the discussion. This facilitates versatile discussion and potentially draws more insightful opinions and perspectives.

• Client-involvement focus groups

This method involves having a client or propagator of the research overtly or covertly participating in the discussion.

• Mini focus groups

A smaller number of participants interact in a more intimate environment to discuss particularly sensitive ideas.

• Participant-moderated focus groups

One or more of the participants provisionally takes up the lead of moderator to vary the dynamic of the group and generate more versatile opinions.

• Online focus group

This method involves online mediums that gather feedback and opinions, generally involving three types of people in the focus panel; observers, moderators, and respondents.

How to design focus groups


Select your participants carefully. Consider the socio-demographic variables of the participants and align them with the aims, objectives, and target audience personas of the research. If your research is related to a technical subject, members need adequate knowledge of the topic so as to give helpful inputs. Read here for more information on market segmentation.


The moderator needs to be able to create a supportive and open-minded environment to encourage active participation and versatile perspectives. There cannot be pressuring participants to vote, plan or reach consensus (Krueger, 1988). Moderators should exercise neutral, unobtrusive control over the discussion with pre-determined questions ready and adequate knowledge of the topic to keep the discussion flowing in the desired direction.


A plan should be kept in place with the goal of the research made clear to both the conductors of the study and the participants. This makes the study run smoothly and efficiently without confusion or unnecessary discussion. Questions should align with the research objective and complement one another to probe further answers. Open-ended questions should be asked and dichotomous ones avoided.


At the end of the discussion, revisit specific topics and questions that were not touched upon enough, or which need more qualitative data. The same discussion needs follow-ups with similar types of participants to identify trends and patterns in perceptions. Careful and systematic analysis of the discussions provides insight as to how a product or service will be received by the market.

Mistake to avoid while designing focus groups

• Recruitment

Picking a random group of participants for a focus group will result in misleading results. For example, if you’re conducting research on anti-aging creams, teenagers and young adolescents being involved in the study would lead to deceptive or inaccurate conclusions. Make sure the participants fit the necessary prerequisites. The group should also be heterogeneous enough to be representative of various crowds.

• Conductors

Experienced moderators with hands-on exposure would be familiar with useful group dynamic techniques. This can maximize the positive benefits of interaction among participants. They also know how to steer discussions and avoid having dominant voices that influence reactions, as well as facilitate the environment to allow everyone’s inputs to be voiced. Experienced moderators also enter discussions not with a general idea on how to go about it, but with a formal discussion guide that adheres to the goals of the study. Furthermore, cutting costs with the moderator can be potentially harmful to the study conducted.

• Final Data

Results from focus groups should not be quantified as it is useless and misleading since they are not projectable. Focus groups are about the overall picture and mass perception, not individual details.

Focus groups in market research

Predetermine your questioning route, interview guide, or protocol is and follow a logical sequence to mimic a natural exchange. The purpose of a focus group is not to arrive at a consensus, some level of agreement, or make a business decision but to get exploratory results.

Responses in a focus group are open-ended, broad, and qualitative. The results are more prone to capturing what the consumer thinks about the product or service. The purpose of focus group research is to draw upon applicable attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences, and reactions of respondents.

Focus groups can provide insight into complicated topics where opinions or attitudes are conditional or where the area of concern relates to multifaceted behavior or motivation. They are among the best options when there is little or no knowledge about the target market. When a new product or service is in the making, and you’re not sure how the customers will react, focus groups help. Once the information is gathered, changes may be applied to the service or product to make sure that it will be received well by the target audience.

In conclusion

The benefit of qualitative research approaches is that you do not start with a rigid ‘hypothesis’ that needs proving. Rather, it is an open-ended approach that is subject to iterations as you go. This enhances the quality of the data and insights generated.

Focus groups are one of the most efficient qualitative tools in market research strategy. They give an exploratory and in-depth understanding of the service or product that cannot be covered with quantifiable market research strategies.