Focus groups are small groups of people, usually recruited by a nationwide recruitment agency, that are brought together to have conversations around a specific brand, product, or service. Focus groups are moderated by a trained interviewer who is experienced in managing group dynamics and probing participant responses to get a more nuanced understanding of what drives their behavior.
Focus groups are most productive when they have between six to 12 participants. There are also “micro” focus groups that are composed of two or three people. These are known as dyads or triads.
Qualitative research consultants are trained to understand how group dynamics may influence people’s choices or behavior, especially as it relates to market research. Group discussions often stimulate engaging and dynamic conversations. Such conversations often allow the moderator to discover, explore, and go in-depth on various topics and subject matters. This deep-dive into subjects helps contextualize the influences behind decision-making processes.
Typically, a focus group lasts between one to two hours. Any longer than two hours and a focus group becomes unproductive, as participants start to feel fatigued. Experienced market research consultants know how to craft discussion guides that will give them ample time to discuss the various subjects needing to be explored.
When a market research project includes focus groups as part of a study, there will usually be between two to ten scheduled groups. Sometimes a researcher will reduce the number of scheduled focus groups if s/he finds that “subject saturation” is occurring. This is when most focus group participants are giving similar answers between groups and no new discoveries are being made.
The factors that help a qualitative research consultant decide on the number of focus groups are:
- number of topics needing to be explored or studied
- research goals, done in collaboration with the client
Before launching focus groups, some moderators will first conduct a pilot group which helps define question clarity, flow, and understanding.
Most moderators prefer in-person focus groups because it’s easier to watch group dynamics and body language. Sometimes, due to geographic or logistical challenges, face-to-face isn’t always possible. Alternatives to face-to-face focus groups include online and telephone. If it is necessary to conduct virtual focus groups, make sure you’re working with a qualitative research firm that is experienced in these alternative options.
Once the focus group is underway, moderators will direct a free-flowing discussion about topics related to the products, services, brands, and advertisements being studied.
For business marketing research purposes, moderators will hold focus groups at facilities designed for conducting focus groups. Such facilities are often coordinated by market research recruiting firms. Typically, focus-group rooms have one-way mirrors so that the client, usually managers and executives, can listen to and observe focus groups. Most qualitative researchers also insist on audio and video recording focus groups so they can more easily collate the data.
A successful focus group moderator is like a juggler keeping several balls in the air at once. The moderator will ask questions, follow up with more questions, and keep the conversation on track and on subject.
While a good focus group moderator makes focus group moderating look simple, it isn’t. Moderating requires skill and practice. Most moderators are trained in how to manage groups to keep the conversation flowing, and how to probe answers to get more insight.