As many of my RDW colleagues have written, a strong marketing framework begins with doing your research. Focus groups are a form of market research designed to gather qualitative insights and feedback to inform marketing decisions. They are used to test campaign concepts or marketing ideas, probe brand perceptions, or uncover new insights. It’s most helpful to conduct groups at a formative stage of campaign development when production can still be adjusted to avoid venturing too far down a path that may have unknown pitfalls.

Online vs In-person Focus Groups

The two primary types of focus group methods are in-person and online. In-person focus groups tend to yield richer information than online groups because online focus groups lack face-to-face human interaction and nonverbal communications. Intragroup interaction is often the primary catalyst during groups and helps elicit valuable insights and perspectives that could have otherwise remain undiscovered in an online group.

While in-person focus groups are ideal, they may not be possible with certain audiences or may be cost-prohibitive. That’s where it might be better to conduct online groups. John Lloyd, the founder of Magnet Inc., of one of our market research partners, says “I have conducted numerous online focus groups, but only because I had to. For me, online groups are never a preferred methodology. The experience is normally less fluid due to signals dropping off, sudden interruptions, and extraneous noises. There is also less ability to read faces and reactions to materials. With that said, online groups are an efficient way to connect with multiple people from different places simultaneously, but it can be clunky.”

What makes a successful focus group?

Here is a checklist of suggestions for putting together effective groups.

  • Enlist an experienced facilitator that can manage/lead group discussions and effectively probe participants beyond surface-level responses.
  • The facilitator should have a high degree of interpersonal skills to promote fluid conversation and diffuse awkward or tense situations and remain on-topic.
Discussion guide:
  • Get approval on the guide from your client before beginning research.
  • Be sure the guide incorporates quantitative and qualitative prompts to gather a good mixture of data.
  • Design the guide with the goal of a 30-90 minute completion window for each group.
  • Use the same guide in all of the groups for consistency.
  • Each group should include 6-8 people per group (different people in each group), which we find to be an effective number that allows all members to participate.
  • Recruit an accurate representation of your intended target audience (gender, age, language, etc.) and be sure to recruit more participants than you need to account for no shows.
  • To get an accurate cross-section of your audience, we’ve found that 4-6 groups have been sufficient.
  • Be sure to distribute attendance incentives (money, food, etc.) after the sessions are complete.
  • Choose a location (or secure server) that is specifically set up to conduct, record, and observe groups without interference.
  • Try to host the groups as close to where the target audience works/live to aid attendance.
  • Have a client decision-maker observing groups to clarify questions and responses from the groups to maximize your time with participants.
  • Make sure the final report summarizes the group findings to provide your team with actionable next steps.

Prospecting for golden information

Both online and in-person groups are extremely helpful. Online focus groups are like panning for gold; in-person groups are like mining a gold vein. In-person groups require a larger investment in time and expense but can result in discovering a gold vein that can deliver more value. Both options can result in a healthy return on investment. In addition, the audience observing the focus group receives an invaluable up-close encounter with their customers.

Conducting quality focus group research can provide the information you may be lacking to achieve your campaign goals. They can also save your campaign from damaging your brand reputation by avoiding pitfalls. Here’s a list of ten major advertising and PR campaign fails from major brands – most of which probably could have been avoided if proper research was conducted before launching.