Do Focus Groups Work?

Sometimes clients wonder if focus groups are an effective way of learning what customers think.  After many (many!) years of conducting all kinds of research, including focus groups and interviews (both in-person and online), ethnographies, mobile research and surveys, I can authoritatively say, yes, traditional focus groups do indeed work!

I’ve had clients worry about the group dynamic in focus groups, or that “one person will dominate the conversation and take over the group.”  Of course, you need a skilled moderator to make sure that doesn’t happen.  But beyond that, it’s important to remember that group dynamics are an important part of customers’ decision processes.  People don’t make decisions in a vacuum – they discuss things with their friends, read reviews, overhear colleagues.  And yes, some of their friends might even have stronger opinions than others!

I’ve been asked if one-on-one interviews might be a better way to collect more accurate information, since the respondent isn’t influenced by others’ opinions.  In many cases, I feel that one-on-ones are actually less effective than focus groups.  There are several reasons for this:

  • In a one-on-one interview, the “spotlight” is always on the respondent.  They tend to feel they need to sound logical and are less likely to admit to the emotional aspects of their decision-making (and those are the very aspects that have the most influence on their decisions).
  • In focus groups, as soon as one person “lets their hair down,” others are willing to follow.  For example, once I asked moms about the food they give their children.  At first, everyone was only admitting to healthy food and plenty of vegetables.  Then one mom confided, when time is short, it’s so much easier to go with the McDonald’s Happy Meal.  That opened the floodgates, and almost everyone else in the group agreed that fast food is part of their routine!
  • Unlike our clients, research participants don’t think about the research topic 24/7 and may not immediately remember all of their opinions and impressions about the topic.  Hearing others’ comments help people come up with ideas they may not have thought of otherwise.  There’s synergy in the group discussion.

How can you ensure your focus groups will be effective?

  • Hire a professional moderator.  That may sound self-serving, but it’s true!  A professional knows how to handle the group dynamic most effectively.  He or she will be sensitive not just to what participants say, but also to their facial expressions and body language and know when to probe further.
  • Make sure your professional research consultant has a deep understanding of your objectives and the background.  That will ensure they don’t miss opportunities to probe further when participants make a comment that may lead to important nuggets of information and can result in valuable insights.
  • Work with your professional research consultant to develop the best discussion guide possible.  It’s usually most effective to include a mix of direct questions and indirect questioning techniques.  When asked a direct question, people provide the logical answer.  But we know that emotions, context and past experiences play a major role in people’s decisions.  There are many indirect techniques we use to go beyond the rational answers – techniques which work particularly well in focus groups.  For example, metaphorical techniques (“if x were a car, what kind of car would it be?”).  Or role-playing techniques (“what do people say about x?  And what do they really think about x?”).  Those are just two of many effective indirect questioning techniques we can use in focus groups.

To conduct the most effective focus groups to answer your research questions, give me a call at 818-752-7210 or email info at