What is a Focus Group?

A focus group is a qualitative research method.

In fact, there are three primary methods of qualitative research.

They are,

Focus groups, depth interviews, and ethnography are tools in the qualitative toolbox. Like a hammer, screwdriver, and drill, each has its specific purpose, application, and place. Each has its place in the marketing research plan and market research process in business.

For a definition of market research, please visit the website Market Research World. The Market Research Portal offers a host of online resources and research related articles for professionals and students with an interest in the market research industry.

Discovery, Exploration, Direction and Depth

Qualitative marketing research discovers and explores topics. It provides direction and depth.

Qualitative research supports quantitative marketing research. You use focus groups or depth interviews before surveys to develop survey questions and ranges of answers. And, you use focus groups or depth interviews after surveys to gain deeper understanding about survey results.

Qualitative marketing research keeps you up-to-date and spawns new ideas.

Interviewing customers, prospects, or experts is like sifting for gold nuggets. Among the hundreds of facts you amass, you may find one or two that foster success...that transform products, marketing, and advertising into winners.

One golden discovery is worth the effort.

Let’s examine each of the major qualitative research methods.

Focus Groups

In a focus group, a moderator interviews several people at a time.

A typical focus group comprises six to 12 people (respondents), but smaller focus groups are possible too. Triads or dyads are small focus groups, comprising three and two respondents respectively.

The rationale for focus groups is group dynamics. The theory is group discussions stimulate dynamic conversations, which leads to discovery, exploration, direction and depth about topics.

Focus group sessions last between one and two hours. Length depends on goals and number of topics.

Usually a focus group research project consists of two to ten groups, although some companies use more.

The number of focus groups varies and depends on,

  • research goals
  • number of topics
  • segments
  • schedule
  • budget

You should conduct at least two groups. The first is a pilot group, which tests question clarity and understanding.

There are three ways to conduct a focus group:

  • Face-to-Face
  • Online Focus Groups
  • Telephone

Face-to-face is the most common. Most clients prefer face-to-face focus groups to telephone and online focus groups because they like watching respondents. But, online focus groups are becoming popular.

Moderators direct a free-flowing discussion about topics of interest...products, services, brands, and advertisements.

In business marketing research, moderators typically use focus group facilities designed for conducting focus groups. The rooms have one-way mirrors through which managers and executives listen to and observe focus groups. Also the rooms typically include audio and video recording equipment.

A moderator asks questions, follows up with more questions, and keeps the conversation on track.

A focus group moderator is like a juggler, who keeps several balls in the air at once. And the juggling continues for one to two hours. Here’s another metaphor for moderating. A moderator is like a music conductor, conducting a band or orchestra.

A good focus group moderator makes focus group moderating look simple. Yet it requires moderating skill and practice to do it well. Training helps too. It's not difficult, if you have the desire to learn and practice it.

Depth Interviews

Unlike a focus group, a moderator interviews one person at a time...in depth. Depth interviews are also known as one-on-one interviews.

There are three ways to do it:

  • Face-to-Face
  • Online Focus Groups
  • Telephone

You interview customers, prospects, product users, experts, and executives.

You can interview a few people or several dozen. So how many interviews do you need?

Again, the number of depth interviews varies and depends on research goals, number of topics, segments, schedule, and budget.

15 to 30 depth interviews is typical, in each major segment for a research project.

By the 15th interview in a segment, you usually hear similar answers to questions.But every now and then you hear something new. So it is worthwhile to interview more than 15 respondents. More than 30 interviews for a major segment usually produce diminishing returns of new information.

Telephone depth interviews are relatively inexpensive compared to a focus group. The phone is also a useful medium for in-depth interviews with busy experts, professionals, consultants, and senior executives.

If you are a copywriter, product manager, marketing manager, sales manager, ad manager, or small business owner, consider in-depth interviews as an alternative to focus groups.

Usability Test Interviews

A variation of the in-depth interview is a usability test.

Usability studies assess how well humans interact with machine interfaces. Computers, web sites, software, mobile phones, and smart-phones are examples of products tested in usability studies.

A moderator asks a respondent to complete a specific task; for example asking to navigate a website. Moderators and analysts observe usage behaviors and ask questions about attitudes, opinions, and feelings about usability.


Ethnography, which has its roots in anthropology and sociology, watches and describes people in cultures and societies.

Ethnographers watch respondents using products and services, observing behavior. They look at respondents’ surroundings, environment, and culture, and ask questions about their behavior and culture. Ethnographers use open-ended questions and listen to respondents' stories. Question techniques are similar to those used in depth interviews.

Ethnographers try to understand how culture shapes the respondent’s perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, opinions, feelings, and behaviors about products and services.

Methods include:

  • Observing respondents at home, work, or play
  • Video observation
  • Tagging along or shadowing a respondent while shopping

Ethnography is popular now, but it is expensive. It requires trained and experienced ethnographers. They are usually trained anthropology or sociology graduates.

If you are an anthropologist or sociologist, ethnography may be for you. And you can also practice being a focus group moderator.


Use qualitative research for discovery, exploration, direction and depth.

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