Focus groups are small, demographically diverse gatherings of people that have individualized reactions studied for the purpose of market research. Political analysis is also possible with this approach. Moderators used guided questions, open discussions, or both to look at new products or ideas to determine what the potential reaction would be if the concept got introduced to the entire population.
That means focus groups are a form of qualitative research. This approach uses an interview where groups get asked about their beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and perceptions toward packaging, products, services, ideas, advertisements, and more. Participants are free to discuss thoughts with other group members during this process. Then the researchers choose members of each group carefully to determine responses.
Focus groups have been a part of research processes since the early days of World War II when Robert Merton used them to examine how effective propaganda efforts were.
When a new idea requires examination, the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups come under careful consideration.
List of the Advantages of Focus Groups
1. Focus groups can help researchers understand more about a specific population group.
A focus group helps researchers understand the perspectives that a particular demographic has regarding a specific philosophy, belief, or awareness of products, ideas, or political concepts. This approach to gathering information removes the barriers that social dynamics and wealth can have within smaller groups, creating a fair set of characteristics that leads to useful information.
When participants enter into the room for the focus group, everyone is on equal ground. That benefit facilitates the conversations that will follow.
2. It allows a group to create an answer based on compromise.
The purpose of a focus group is to help individuals provide information from their perspectives on specific subjects. One of the unique benefits of this approach is that it can also let researchers see how people in a population group can come to a compromise. Each answer that someone gives gets built on top of the previous ones, helping to facilitate the growth or evolution of thoughts or ideas.
When this dataset receives this advantage of focus groups, then the information provides a more complete perspective. That means each side receives value because of the growth of awareness that occurs.
3. Focus groups can include people from all over the world.
The Internet revolutionized the idea of a focus group. It allows participants to be involved from all over the world. Technologies like web conferencing make it possible to create real-time interactions, while video calling enables face-to-face interactions. This benefit adds more diversity to the research process so that a complete dataset becomes possible to obtain for a population group.
4. Most participants find focus groups to be a lot of fun.
Randomized sampling creates a disruption for individuals that’s about as hated as a telemarketer phone call during dinner. People dislike the idea of giving someone information without receiving something in return, and a contest entry isn’t usually valuable enough today. When someone participates in a focus group, then they are doing so because it is something they want to do. Some programs will even pay people for their participation in these discussions, reimburse travel expenses, or offer advanced access to the products or services under consideration.
5. A focus group allows people to be reasonably anonymous.
Although in-person focus groups require identification and participation to offer useful information, the individual who participates likely doesn’t know the others who will be in the room with them. That means there is a level of anonymity available in this research method that isn’t available in other forms of qualitative research. When online opportunities are available, then this advantage of focus groups expands even further.
When people are with strangers or know that they can be anonymous, then there is a higher chance that they’ll share authentic information with the moderator. Some people don’t like being around a stranger, which means this benefit wouldn’t apply to them. When individuals feel like people are judging them, then it can alter the shared data.
6. Focus groups are an affordable way to collect information.
A focus group is one of the most cost-effective ways to collect data from a qualitative viewpoint. There aren’t any free processes that researchers can use, but this approach typically needs to cover overhead costs only. That means the structure provides a predictable budget-line expense that facilitates the overall approach. It is one of the cheapest ways to obtain a variety of ideas from a single population group.
7. Moderators can change the questions to fit the needs of the group.
A focus group will usually start with a scripted set of questions that a moderator will ask. Some approaches have the participants fill out their answers ahead of time to facilitate an in-depth discussion when the group gets together. This benefit of using this approach to gather information is that it allows the researchers to pursue unexpected answers or tangent trails to see what might be waiting for them at the end of the journey.
It requires a certain level of skill to use this advantage of focus groups. The moderator must know how to recognize the emotional changes in the individual to understand when pursuing a different line of thinking makes sense. When this benefit gets applied correctly, the results can be quite valuable.
8. Focus groups provide valuable information without a significant time investment.
Focus groups offer researchers access to a condensed structure that facilitates information gathering. It is possible to gather a significant number of ideas and opinions in a short time when using this approach. Instead of preparing for multiple individualized interviews to collect the necessary datasets, this qualitative approach allows everyone to share and discuss the concepts that are getting studied.
This advantage is critical to the modern approach to business because marketplaces move quickly. Products under development today only have a few months to reach consumers before they become outdated. Focus groups provide the necessary speed to meet the demands of today’s customers.
9. A focus group can provide a rich variety of information.
Questionnaires and surveys provide researchers with hard datasets to use when evaluating specific ideas, concepts, or processes. It creates a safe place where brainstorming and creativity get encourages so that new approaches can start forming. This advantage leads to a valuable variety of information that is usable when generalizing the findings achieved to the general population. It can result in better prototyping, shorter manufacturing cycles, or knowledge that an approach might be useful.
List of the Disadvantages of Focus Groups
1. The results from the focus group may not represent the larger population.
Focus groups tend to provide a subsection of opinions, beliefs, or viewpoints from a larger population demographic. When moderators bring people together to share their ideas, the information collected is a direct reflection of that group only. If several different conversations all produce a similar result, then the outcomes can get generalized to the larger population group.
Even with a room of diverse people having a conversation, a single focus group doesn’t have the power to provide a greater perspective. The sampled data is still valuable, but it may not be accurate to the needs of the world.
2. Robust opinions can change the outcome of a focus group.
Most groups defer to a leader who represents the overall thoughts and beliefs that get shared. When moderators work with people in this setting, the person who is a persuasive leader can convince others that their perspective is the best way to follow. Instead of receiving a wide range of thoughts and ideas, this approach can lead to single-mindedness.
The best way to avoid this disadvantage of focus groups is to have a skilled moderator who can encourage discussions while inviting everyone to share.
3. Some people may choose not to share their opinions.
Although individuals sign up to participate in focus groups for a variety of reasons, that doesn’t mean there is a guarantee of participation. Some people choose to offer minimal feedback during this process because of shyness, their personality, or because they don’t want to offend anyone. Moderators can counter this disadvantage by encouraging responses to open-ended questions, but it is still a personal choice to get involved. Some people will stay quiet throughout the entire session.
4. Unconscious bias can enter into the conversation to impact the data.
Everyone has conscious and unconscious biases that can impact their perspectives and beliefs. When you bring people together into a focus group, then you have a room full of these issues that can adversely impact the collected data. If like-minded individuals feed on these approaches, then it can justify their behavior. Moderators may have a difficult time trying to conduct interviews or complete surveys in this situation because of the resistance this disadvantage causes.
Moderators also have biases that can influence the results of a focus group. That’s why having an independent audit of the collected data is useful when trying to formulate a response or campaign for the information provided.
5. Focus groups can cause passions to spiral out of control.
The organizers of focus groups attempt to put in structures and protocols that keep people safe when sharing opinions. There can be times when a person’s belief structures, perspectives, or ideas run counter to those shared by the rest of the group. It may be a xenophobic, racist, or targeted concept that gets offered to the moderator, causing the other participants to have an adverse reaction to the individual.
Most issues in a focus group with this disadvantage typically lead to shouting or name-calling. It can also lead to violence on rare occasions. Psychological screening and other review tools can work to prevent this disadvantage, but it may not be 100% eliminated.
6. A moderator can unintentionally impact the quality of the data collected.
The facilitator of a focus group provides more than questions or surveys. These people provide every group of people their energy, perspective, and skill in offering follow up opportunities. It is their job to keep the conversations from wandering off on tangents. The quality of this skill can create incredible datasets that organizations can use for a variety of purposes. It can also make the collected information almost useless.
That’s why the vetting process must carefully look at the experience of the moderator just as much as the people who participate in the focus group process.
7. Focus groups work better with B2C approaches when compared to B2B structures.
Most focus groups look at consumer concepts only because of the difficulties involved in bringing business representatives together in the same room. Organizational needs can vary widely even when two firms operate in the same industry, which means a concept or idea might apply to one company, but not the other. Most agencies already provide individualized support in this economic structure because of the logistical challenges involved.
8. People have less time to share their perspectives in focus groups.
A focus group won’t provide an individual with the same amount of time they’d have to share a thought when compared to randomized sampling or personal interviews. This disadvantage can cause people to feel pressured to share a response as quickly as possible, disrupting the quality of the information that researchers gather. It can also cause hesitancy within the group because there is a desire to keep pressing forward.
This issue is another reason why the participants of a focus group have the tendency to agree with the loudest or strongest opinion in the room.
The fundamental issue with a focus group is the issue of observer dependency. This problem impacts all forms of qualitative research. The results obtained in this effort are directly influenced by the moderator, the research team, and the interpretation of the achieved results. It is a problem that can raise questions of validity because of the presence of the experimenter’s bias.
Focus groups can also be a way to encourage awareness about critical topics or to create better resources. The U.S. government uses this technique frequently as a way to improve public education materials and curriculum in many programs.
When evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups, it is imperative to look at the processes needed to create results. With the proper structure and moderator skill, this approach can be a useful way to generate data about a concept before its full introduction.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.