Are focus groups still an effective method to gauge consumer insight?

Focus groups are not a thing of the past and remain an effective way to research current and prospective customers. However, the groups will need to incorporate new and cheaper technology to stay relevant.


Robert Moran, Partner, Brunswick
Nearly two decades of market research experience. He directs the agency's insight practice in the Americas

Though there are many emerging tools and methods that will reduce the use of traditional and online focus groups, they still remain viable tools for expanding insights.

Passive listening methods, such as social media analytics and the mining of behavioral data, are the largest challenges to traditional research methods in general and focus groups in particular. However, while these methods often uncover wrinkles in consumer thinking and behavior, they struggle to answer why consumers believe or behave in those ways. Focus groups are very useful in exploring the "why" of consumer opinion and behavior.

Moreover, focus groups have evolved over time and continue to do so. For example, a significant amount of focus-group work is conducted online, reducing travel and facility rental costs. One interesting example of this is GutCheck, an online service that provides rapid participant recruiting and online chat sessions similar to focus groups.

In addition, many focus groups are conducted within proprietary online communities, sometimes called MROCs, or market research online communities, built by companies such as Communispace. This trend is sure to continue, and, in an interesting twist, we can expect crowdsourcing platforms such as IdeaScale to add focus group features over time.  

Still, traditional, fixed-location focus groups have one strength that almost no other methodology can match - the client-adviser strategic dialogue in the backroom "behind the glass." I have often argued that some of the greatest value is added after the focus groups conclude and while the moderator, research team, and client discuss the findings and absorb the strategic implications together. After all, what other research methodology in the 21st century involves four or more hours of focused client-adviser time discussing the consumer mindset and their strategic implications?

While traditional and online focus groups may decline in relative terms as a research methodology, they are likely to remain a valid option for years to come.


Tim Ryan, SVP, director, BlissPR
More than 22 years of industry experience, ranging from posts on Capitol Hill to tech companies

Focus groups as we used to know them are a thing of the past. So yesterday.

This is not to say the same type of information gleaned from focus groups is no longer valued. It's the vehicle and process by which we obtain it. There is now an easier, more efficient, and highly more engaging way to capture it.  

Which invariably brings up the argument of which is better - primary or secondary research? It used to be that secondary was used to lay the foundation and primary was used to fill in the gaps. That is no longer the case. There is just too much information available today - coupled with fast and free opportunities to obtain more - not to be able to fill in the gaps and then some.

Secondary research is accessible. Consumer information and insight is everywhere. Can you say "search and click?" Using search and online platforms, we now have access to literally every demographic we could possibly imagine.

Secondary research is affordable. Typical focus-group sessions can run $4,000 to $6,000 each. In order to compare and corroborate findings, at least two sessions are needed. $10,000 goes in a jiff. Surely we could make good use of this investment in our PR programs.

Secondary research can be authentic. In fact, it's even more authentic than a controlled group of people who might have manipulated a questionnaire in order to get a free dinner and $150.

It's not a stretch to say secondary is the new primary.

I recently participated in a TEDx event at the University of Chicago where we talked about the concept of revolutions in our society. There was the coding revolution, design revolution, sexual revolution, mobile revolution, and, one of my personal favorites, the how-we-ask-our-questions revolution. A search engineer from Microsoft Research spoke about the tag-team impact of both asking people questions directly and then following up with search or social to get more targeted answers. Brilliant.

Research might never be more accessible, affordable, and authentic - and it doesn't take a focus group to figure that out.

PRWeek's View
Focus groups are not a thing of the past and remain an effective way to research current and prospective customers. However, the groups will need to incorporate new and cheaper technology to stay relevant.

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