Focus group: asking the right questions

At the start of any new venture or project, one word often gets thrown around more than any other, research. Research is that magical undertaking which if conducted thoroughly will ensure our success. But not all research methods are made equal.

Ask any scientist and they will tell you, primary sources are the most valuable sources in research. Good research is not about digging through websites. It’s talking to real people. But to make sure the data you get out of real users is accurate, you have to ditch the leading questionnaires and head into the focus group for live, genuine, unrefined data.

Focus groups first emerged during World War II when researchers wanted to know how everyday people reacted to propaganda. The stakes were high, and those commissioning the research were prepared to try something new. The results were so good that US advertising companies continued the practice in peace times, and we still use focus groups today.

Depending on what researchers what to know, criteria are developed and individuals who match these criteria are sourced. TV executives typically look at age and gender groups to test their new shows, but in sales, they might look at income, purchase history and locale to measure interest in a new product. Next, a group session is arranged.

“It is especially significant when generating new ideas for products and marketing…”

The group is comprised of six to 10 participants, and one or more moderators who will discuss the moderator-led topic. Prompts such as questions, adverts or food tastings are used to create responses, which are recorded word for word. The group might watch an advert together and talk about how it made them feel, or they may talk about discuss topics such as politics or religion.

The aim is to elicit genuine responses to prompts, so products, adverts and even political platforms can be developed which would be appealing to this group. This exploratory method is referred to a ‘qualitative’ rather than ‘quantitate’ research. It is especially significant when generating new ideas for products and marketing based on purchase habits.

“They can also completely fail.”

As with any method of research, the quality of the data that comes out is often only as robust as the design and delivery of the research. In the past, focus groups have produced incredible, but non-replicable qualitative data which has not helped the researchers. They can also completely fail. This can happen when the participants modify their responses because they feel they are being judged, or when a researcher unconsciously leads the participants towards answers. Participants often try to predict and mirror the overall responses of the group too. So if a weaker participant perceives a stronger participant is leaning in one direction, they may follow.

However, techniques to improve focus group use are always emerging and it continues to be a method of research, which goes from strength to strength. It can be especially useful for gauging customer preferences towards service offerings and cost structures, providing much more accurate data than questionnaires.

And focus groups are well known for delivering answers to questions, which researchers hadn’t yet formulated. So with focus groups, we can see there is truth in the old adage — Sometimes there’s no substitute for asking the right questions.

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