When to and When Not to Conduct a Focus Group

By: Amanda Barna


A focus group is a carefully planned discussion led by a moderator designed to gather opinions on a defined topic. While focus group research is an excellent methodology to meet many research objectives, there are times to use them and times to not use them.

When TO do a Focus Group:

  1. To delve deeper into issues identified through a larger, quantitative study.

    Why a focus group is appropriate: Focus groups are beneficial when the goal is to generate an explanation. If an issue or problem is identified in a quantitative study and you want additional information on why it is an issue or problem, a focus group provides an avenue to gather this information at an affordable cost. Generating a discussion with the right audience surrounding an issue can be a very powerful method to gain a deeper understanding of that issue.

  2. To collect additional information to prepare a survey for a larger quantitative study.

    Why a focus group is appropriate:  There may be times when you are unsure about what questions to ask or what language to use. Focus groups allow you to uncover hidden information that can be used to inform your survey design.

  3. To test marketing materials with a target audience, like undecided voters or consumers.

    Why a focus group is appropriate: When it comes to marketing, what you actually say is not as important as what people think you are saying and how they receive that communication. It can be difficult to put yourself into the mindset of your target audience but understanding that mindset and the information they need and how they need to receive it is vital to a successful marketing campaign whether for a new product or service offering or to achieve a desirable election outcome.

When NOT to do a Focus Group:

  1. To make major marketing or budgetary decisions.

    Why a focus group is NOT appropriate: While focus groups can provide a wealth of ideas and feedback on perceptions and opinions, qualitative data lacks statistical precision. Focus groups work well in tandem with a quantitative study (see #1 on the list above), but shouldn’t be used in place of a quantitative study when there is a lot at stake.

  2. If you need to generalize results to a large population or statistical data is required.

    Why a focus group is NOT appropriate: The participants of a focus group are often representative of the population, but they are not necessarily a statistically representative sample of the population. The sample sizes are usually too small to draw statistical conclusions about a large population. In depth discussions with a small group of people will not allow you to make assumptions about the larger population.

  3. To save time and money in the data collection process

    Why a focus group is NOT appropriate: A common myth about focus groups is that they are a quick and cheap way to collect data. Focus groups, like other methodologies, require a great deal of planning and effort in order to be effective. While focus groups may cost less money than a telephone or web survey, they may not achieve the desired research objective therefore wasting more money than is saved.