How to design and conduct effective focus group discussions

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 20 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Focus groups are an important market research tool for businesses seeking to understand the way consumers think and feel. It involves a small group of carefully selected people who discuss a particular topic of interest to the company. A facilitator collects data from the group and draws together a report on the participants' thoughts and feelings about the topic under discussion. In this article, we explain what a focus group discussion involves and some techniques for establishing effective focus group discussions.

How to conduct effective focus group discussions

These are the most important elements to consider during the design process to allow a company to conduct effective focus group discussions:

1. Having a clear understanding of the desired outcomes

Companies run focus groups for different reasons. Sometimes, a brand wants to understand how consumers perceive it. In other instances, a company wants to test how potential customers respond to a new advert or marketing campaign. It is important that they have a clear aim in mind when pulling together a focus group, as this helps to shape everything from the participants to the length of the discussion and the questions used.

It is also helpful to consider from the start what format the results may take. For example, this could take the shape of a written report, but equally, there may be a need for a presentation or verbal brief that the study facilitator can brief back to seniors. Having this in mind in the early stages of study design can be helpful in shaping the way the research happens.

2. Selecting the best participants for a focus group

A key part of any company's marketing plan is identifying its target audience. Even products with mass appeal, consumables like food or consumer electronics like mobile phones, often still focus their marketing on particular subsets of the population. A product that tries to appeal to everyone is not as likely to succeed as a product that targets a niche group and produces marketing materials that really appeal to that group. These identified target audiences are an important consideration for anyone planning a focus group discussion. A company can approach the selection of participants in several ways.

They may select people who closely align to their specific target audiences; for example, retired people with high disposable income or new mothers with an interest in organic produce. If a company wants to introduce a product to market aimed at one of these groups, it makes sense to hear directly from people in that group, including what they think and feel about a new product. If a company wants a broader understanding of the public perception of the company or their products, selecting participants from a wider subset of society can have value and be more representative.

3. Establishing the optimal style and structure for the group

Focus groups work best when there are enough people to have a lively discussion, but not so many people that the facilitator can't hear everyone's views. There is no set, perfect number of participants, but a group size of between 6 and 10 people is common. The goal of a facilitator is to ask the group a question and then allow discussion on the topic to flow freely. A facilitator can interject if the group goes off-topic or if some members of the group are reticent about sharing their views.

It is helpful when group participants are confident and comfortable speaking in front of a group. This is an important selection criterion for those selecting who to involve in the focus group. If the group contains a broad range of personalities, a facilitator may choose to direct questions and probe more into the answers or views of quieter group members. More dynamic focus groups have observers, perhaps brand managers or other representatives, who can watch the flow of the conversation. Based on what they hear, they can feed in follow-up questions to put to the group.

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Format of focus groups

There are many factors that are important when considering how to conduct effective focus group discussions. Focus groups can take different formats and the methods used vary, depending on the focus group and how it sits alongside other aspects of market research. The following formats of focus groups are common:

  • Standalone: A one-off group discussion to cover a specific topic, where this focus group is the principal source of data.

  • Supplementary: A focus group that enhances a primary method of data collection, by conducting an in-depth review of some topics raised during a larger quantitative study.

  • Complementary: A focus group that is part of a multimodal design. Meaning, a company conducts many varying pieces of research which are equally weighted and none of which shape the use of other methodologies.

Although these different groups can sit separately within a wider piece of market research, there are some aspects of all of them that are the same.

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Questions and processes in an effective focus group

Some focus groups revolve around testing ideas or concepts, whether that is an idea for a brand-new product or a marketing idea like an advertising campaign to attract consumers to an existing product. Others focus on finished products. Focus groups that are about ideas which test whether the idea appeals to consumers and whether there is a gap in the market for this idea.

Product testing groups revolve around giving group members the chance to explore the product and facilitating a discussion about what they think and feel about it. Depending on the product, this could involve trying out the product there and then or having a discussion around a product that group members received in advance, perhaps to try out at home.

Product sampling

Some products perfectly fit being tested in a focus group scenario. A good example would be a new brand of chocolate. By sharing the product with the group, the company can understand people's first impressions of the product. They might ask about many features like smell and appearance, before eventually sampling the product and discussing its taste. Effective questions for this kind of focus group might include:

  • What does the product make you think/feel?

  • What time of day/week would you be eating this product at home?

  • Does this product remind you of anything or does it feel fresh and innovative? Would you buy this product if you saw it in a shop?

  • How much would you be willing to pay for this product?

Reviewing a product

This type of product testing, giving the group access to a product or service for several days or weeks before the focus group, is quite common. It means that the group discussion can focus on the experience of using the product over an extended period. The participants' views on the product can help shape how the company advertises it, as it gives a fair reflection of how real people actually used the product. It's less about first impressions and more about the sustained views of the quality and utility of a new product or service.

It is also helpful for a company to understand how and when a customer uses a product. For example, if the brand produced a new type of coffee machine, they may send one to the group members a few weeks in advance and utilise the group to ask questions about how they interacted with the product. Effective questions might include:

  • What time of day did you choose to use the product?

  • What made you want to use it?

  • What mood were you in when you tried the product?

  • Did you find it easy to use?

  • Could you imagine using this product regularly as part of your daily routine?

  • What would make this product better?

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Concept testing

Concept testing may involve a group discussion of a product that doesn't yet exist, but which a company is thinking about developing. An example might be a bank considering introducing a new range of mortgages with much longer fixed terms. A focus group of people who have mortgages or are considering getting a mortgage in future would discuss the proposed model the bank has developed for new mortgages. An effective focus group that shows a concept tests well informs the company that there may be a gap in the market. Effective questions include:

  • Would this product appeal to you?

  • What is it that makes this an appealing concept?

  • If it doesn't appeal, why not?

  • What would make this product more appealing to people in your position?

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