While newer qualitative methods -- online discussion forums and online research communities -- often deliver a more more effective qualitative venue and process, traditional in-person focus groups remain an important part of the qualitative marketing research tool kit. Focus groups are best used when observation of group dynamics, interaction between participants, is important to the research mission. Groups are especially useful as a way to personally connect client management with buyers and prospects. As client observers view and hear the group action from behind a one-way mirror, customers and prospects become more than numbers and stats. Clients watch expressions, body language, reactions, and top-of-mind thoughts expressed as people speak brands and competitors.
Firms select focus groups as a qualitative prelude to quantitative market studies, online surveys, phone surveys, and other quantitative market research. Focus group marketing research is applicable to both business B2B marketing research, and to consumer research. For more details, see our discussion in our FAQ about "Qualitative versus Quantitative" market research methods.
Customer "focused discussion groups" -- another term for "focus groups" -- and the related qualitative research method, 'depth interviews', are especially useful in the early stages of strategy decision-making. At one time, focus group research studies for market research were considered to be one of the less costly marketing research methods. Today, however, alternate methods of getting inside the buyer's mind may offer equally rich, or better, marketing information at an overall lower cost.
The main point here is the value of getting in-depth insight into the buyer belief and attitude structure, and use this insight for business strategy developement. For example, when scanning for strategic opportunities they can uncover important consumer and business buyer attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that may precede an emerging trend. Non-directive techniques and projective research techniques are especially useful in defining buyer motivations .
Focus groups are very different from survey research methods, yet marketing managers and executives can easily fall in the trap of making quant-like interpretations, e.g. adding up how many people said what and calculating percentages, etc. ad infinitum. Different from statistically reliable public opinion and market surveys, online surveys, and other quantitative techniques, these qualitative methods should not be used for market sizing, measuring consumer or B2B brand preference, brand position, customer satisfaction or buying or product usage behavior. They are best suited for uncovering the spectrum or range of views, beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and experiences. This helps build assumptions and generate ideas which may warrant further assessment.
Aside from focus group discussions, other qualitative methods worthy of analysis are depth interviews either fact-to-face or by phone, content analysis and special observational qualitative methods such as ethnographic studies. (Photo ethnography, for example, uses various methods to watch what people do e.g. store shopping, using products in their home, behavior during a sales call, etc.)
While group discussions are very popular among qualitative techniques, there are many important "do's and don'ts". It is critical that the researcher knows how, when and where they can be used, and where they should be avoided. See our Brand Strategy Blog updates for discussions of new issues brought on by the advent of online focus groups, forums and research communities.