Focus Groups - Dead or Alive?


What is the future of in-person focus group (or one-on-one) interview research? Now that data is everywhere and easy to generate, will qualitative research like focus groups die? Or will they be needed more than ever to make sense of the never-ending data stream? Or will they simply be replaced by online qualitative tools?

Dawn Houghton
84 months ago

29 answers


Two things happen in marketing research. Quantitative research guides insights by exposing consumer proclivities, segmentation opportunities, and trends. Qualitative research informs idea generation and creative insights. People who gravitate to data sometimes fail to understand how important leaps of intuition and raw creativity can be to breaking through media clutter and capturing the attention and imagination of consumers. The most effective advertising is rarely the product of number crunching but rather springboards from organic insights garnered through indepth contact with representative consumers. Qualitative research, including focus groups, enables us to ask questions never considered, probe deeper into hidden motivations, and experience spontaneous ah-ha moments based on what group members say and don't say. As a creative director, I would much rather dispense with quantitative research than qualitative research when its time to create advertising strategies that are truly original and buzz-worthy.

Brent Green | Generational Marketing | Speaker
84 months ago
Very well and precisely put Brent. I couldn't agree more (and this is coming from a persons who's experience skews more heavily in custom quant). Both are valuable and quite powerful for their respective insights, however when paired together and done right, WHOA, magic can happen. Thank you for your expertise. - Jahnia 77 months ago
Nicely said Brent and I can not agree more. Quantitative data does not necessarily reveal the intensity of the response, which is very important. Recently we did a project with 1-on-1 interviews with surgeons of which I listened in to all of them. It made review of the moderators report that much more insightful. In addition, focus groups allow for immediate and deep probing to reach insights. - Gary 74 months ago
Agree. I am moving from a quantitative to a qualitative approach and this is a completely different world. I indeed prefer qualitative researches now even if the quantitative one could still be of support from time to time. - Paolo 74 months ago
Quality; especially for niches. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
Low cost - for the masses. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

One should always remember the purpose of qualitative research and focus groups in particular, when answering this question. Focus groups are designed to elicit individual and group feedback to stimulus and to enable expansive discussion in order for the clients to: (1) rule out bad ideas, (2) develop hypotheses, (3) come up with new and or better ideas, (4) help confirm existing hypotheses.
Focus groups should not be used to make Go/No Go decisions, because they are not statistically valid nor representative.
All of this said, if one uses the research as intended, focus groups provide value and are valuable.

Michael Fruhling
83 months ago
I agree with Michael 110%‼️ - Robert F. 83 months ago
Yes, focus groups are a necessary and cost-effective way to gain (non-represerntative) qualitative data and new ideas. Cheap labor, whenit comes down to it. - Beth 79 months ago
Michael Fruhling I think FGIs are an important tool for front end innovation. - Dawn 79 months ago
I fully agree with you, Dawn! Dawn Houghton - Michael 79 months ago
I agree with you - Youngmin 74 months ago
OK! - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
Yes. - RUPAK 65 months ago

hello all.
i am a 30+ year marketing vetetan who was weaned on research so i feel equipped to answer this query.
focus groups will always be around as thee most useful mkt tool. it is also the most cost effective tool to utilize when in need of qualitative research data quickly and right ftom the horse's mouth.
you can never replace the human element that focus groups provide a client.

Robert F. Bohn
84 months ago
I wonder if the FANG companies used focus groups. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

My exceptional qulification is that I am a consumer. I'd go with focus groups continuing to impact marketing. Here are some of the reasons for my response: 1) I don't often find data reflects me well. When results of polls are announced, I frequently wonder "who did they ask to get that answer?" 2) If you want to make me happy or make me buy your product/service then listen to me. Even if you don't listen to me, make me believe you tried to or wanted to. Some highly successful products were poorly supported until consumers made it clear they filled a need/want. 3) The human animal is fickle and illogical, not really all that data driven. In person or one:one electronic interaction give me the chance to tell you what I like and what I'll spend money on.

Megan Hamilton
83 months ago
TRUE DAT: fickle and illogical. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Focus groups will remain alive and be an important tool to gather consumer attitudes on product concepts, mock ups, and actual products or services. The moderator is a critical success factor... ensuring all participants participate and the group is not hijacked by a vocal member. Lots is quantitaive methods are available for larger scale consumer insight gathering, but focus groups enable marketers to get up close and personal with consumers about their product/service.

Frank S. Klisanich
83 months ago
I'm surprised more people haven't mentioned the moderator/discussion leader's role, to this point, Frank. They make or break the usefulness of the focus group experience for the client (and participants)! - Beth 79 months ago
Frank S. Klisanich Beth McNamara, MSW an excellent moderator makes it or breaks it! - Dawn 79 months ago
MODERTOR is cheer leader, too. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
I'm encouraged to see mention of the importance of the moderator's skill. If you see a moderator playing the role of cheerleader you should put a stop to it immediately. That is one of the most common bad practices, and in my opinion the reason focus groups have been the but so many jokes. The bashing of the focus group is a sport because of bad moderators. - Deb 65 months ago
May be biased, too - Dr. David E. 65 months ago

In-person focus group are under pressures due to lower marketing budgets and new technologies. There is no question that the personal contact with the group creates faster and more precise results. There is a difference if a human has a potential new product in his hands than seeing this via Virtual Glasses. Furthermore the in-person situation makes it easier for the facilitator to create a trustful situation.

On the other hand, online sessions are cheaper and also deliver solutions. For this it should not be that one replaces the other, but to combine the two instruments. Similar to Virtual Twins. Companies can test ideas first in virtual sessions and if these create positive results, they can go to the next step and discuss the topic in an in-person focus group.

Patrick Henz
79 months ago
Patrick Henz I agree, depends on learning objectives. - Dawn 79 months ago
Thanks Dawn!! - Patrick 79 months ago
Actually, I distrust moderators as shills. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
A representant of the client company speaks first with the moderator, then stays behind the mirror (which works as one-way window) to observe the session. In-between the sessions the representant speaks with the moderator, so that the last can adjust to the client's requirements. - Patrick 67 months ago
OMG-I had NO idea.- - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

I think Focus Groups will remain. However, the long-term survival really depends on the organization/moderator how they want to use them. Meeting in person is always the best, in any case. Objective and Goal are two very important things and here the responsibility goes to the moderator. I mean, what exactly a moderator wants to achieve. 
Yes, online sessions make things easy and cheaper but it's like comparing an online course and in-person classroom. I agree with the fact that there will be ongoing challenges like budget etc. Again, moderators will have to convince for budget and support, if they believe in the idea. 

Hitesh Mathpal
79 months ago
Hitesh Mathpal you are right a focus group is only as good as it's objective and moderator! - Dawn 78 months ago
and excellent analogy with online courses. - Dawn 78 months ago
Thanks. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
Agreed with online courses example. - Maya 66 months ago
DITTO - Dr. David E. 65 months ago

There will always be the need for in person qualitative research. At times can the traditional in person focus group be replaced by an on-line version? Yes. It depends on your objectives, the robustness of information you need, how important the decision is, and what you are researching. If you need to see people's reactions (facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.) or need to physically show them something, for example a new product design language, that's the role of the in person group. If the decision is very important, a lot of communication is non-verbal, that's the role of in person groups. If you just need a quick qualitative read, on-line is fine. Also from experience the sell into major retailers of a product with a new design language and new colors is SO much easier with a video of consumers having their breath taken away when the new product is unveiled to them.

John Zigament
83 months ago
John Zigament I agree, it depends but still a need. - Dawn 79 months ago
Well, OK. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
I agree that the non-verbal communication made possible in an in-person session is a huge factor. Facial expressions, what makes people laugh or groan cannot be discovered in any other way. - Deb 65 months ago
A picture is stll worth a thousand words - DITTO F2F - Dr. David E. 65 months ago

I am in the  "focus group should stay" camp!
As Brent Green and others reflected earlier on, qualitative research (of which focus groups remains a key methodology) should be leveraged to explore, understand, identify a direction, formulate hypothesis. They will never replace quantitative research, but they can and should enrich its outcomes.
As with everything, even more because it can be very subjective and misleading, we need to ensure we use the right agencies- better agencies with very good moderators (this also has been said and its absolutely critical).
A bad qual could not only not bring any insights, but actually put you on a wrong path. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad qual agencies around. In my 20 years career, I can count on one hand the people I would work with around the world!
An additional consideration is: are focus groups the right approach for what you are trying to achieve? Not all the time. When you want to get a real feel of the context and how the context influences decision making, I find ethnography could be much more insightful.
To those raising the challenge of "direct questioning" (which I agree its one of the biggest problems we have with focus groups and qual in general), again a good moderator should be able to adopt projective techniques and other tools to get under the skin of the consumers.
I have experienced very few doing this very well.

Giulia Iorio-Ndlovu
79 months ago
Giulia Iorio-Ndlovu well said! I also like ethnography for context. Face to face groups offer group interactions you can't get with IDIs. - Dawn 78 months ago
Thanks. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Its really not focus group stay or go, its what are they going to be in 2018 versus 2020.

Randy Vogenberg, PhD
79 months ago
Alive and evolving! - Dawn 79 months ago
Yep - Thomas 78 months ago
Implants, wearables or/and optical scanners for shoping will collect the data. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
New Holo Lens, too! - Dr. David E. 66 months ago
But purely observational data such as implants and scanners are different from (and cannot replace) engaging people in a conversation, and using projective exercises to help them access associations, feelings and thoughts that exist below the surface of their conscious thinking. - Deb 65 months ago
Agree for higher end and cognitive items; not so much for commodities - Dr. David E. 65 months ago

To me its not about YES or NO to focus group, its more about knowing what you're trying to learn more or find out about. That's been lost in how business gets done today, especially larger manufacturers where process has superceded outcomes.

Randy Vogenberg, PhD
78 months ago
But. the SALE is made on a Y/N decision. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

I believe focus groups will actually grow. The reason is that Cell Phone use has made it more difficult for pollsters to track the sentiment of the population. Witness the fact that every major pollster predicted a Hillary Clinton victory. I think that until pollsters and market researchers can address this issue, they will take a step backward with focus groups.

Donald Wedding
79 months ago
Donald Wedding I do think both qualitative and quantitative methods will grow as more knowledge is always better than less. - Dawn 78 months ago
Obtrusive and Insulting random polls. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Not sure predictive analysis is that simple in healthcare. Changes occur every year since implementation of ACA in 2012. And market forces changing elements with supply chain also impact decision-making by providers or patients as consumers so extremely complex.

That leaves us with no good answer or single solution that is cost efficient, hence the reason why the same old same old continues.

Randy Vogenberg, PhD
79 months ago
Randy Vogenberg, PhD regulated markets do challenge research methodology! - Dawn 78 months ago
Challenge for sure, and good for the more entrepreneur-like people versus tried & true. - Randy 78 months ago
A new entrant: ABJ Ventures initiative. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

i am a big supporter of focus groups . it might seem useless but its far from it . team collaboration and individual responses are very valuable , i might think i know all answers but every time we do focus groups i am very pleased with individual responses ,they are very creative ,different and disrupt general presentation and valuable as a individual input

amit patel
78 months ago
amit patel I too have seen many focus groups change the way we understand consumers! - Dawn 78 months ago
Evolution but not revolution. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Looking a potential user or customer in the eye is so valuable. There's more than just words that shape the design of a product. Focus groups give you hands-on, in-person opportunities to get 360 feedback.

Dave Huber
78 months ago
Dave Huber seeing expressions on people's faces and the non-verbal cues can tell you a lot about what they are trying to say. - Dawn 78 months ago
Agree. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Market research fails when the hypotheses or questions to be asked and answered are nonsensical to the reality of the marketplace as it experiences rapid cycle change.
Like actuaries in health care insurance, looking back doesn't work well in modeling where the market is going in an environment of rapid, constant change.
New and innovative market research applications are beginning to be more instructive along with actionable in advising firms how to prepare better for the market. That along with a renewed effort on strategy versus tactics will be more beneficial then relying on traditional market research alone.

Randy Vogenberg, PhD
81 months ago
Nice health insurance analogy. Past is not prologue - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Approaches like Design Thinking & Google Sprints (similar) depend heavily on empathy for the end user of the object or service that is designed. Focus interviews (1:1) play a very important role in this, since interviews in groups will always lead to biases: whomever speaks first or loudest, has a disproportional influence on the outcome.

Also, you are looking for a lot of non verbal information which is very hard to get out of online research.

Bart Groenewoud
78 months ago
True - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Several years ago, I was a participant in several "product testing and usage" hands-on focus groups. I personally felt my opinions were well received by the focus groups evaluators and organizers. I felt they truly cared what our opinions and comments were on the products we ate, used , operated or watched. Some of the college students in the room were very happy with receiving $75 for 2 hours of "work" evaluating the items. So I feel in person focus groups will continue be a valuable resource for companies to use in the present and well into the future.

David Barckhoff-Sag-Aftra/Producer, Director
77 months ago
I personally felt my opinions were well received by the focus groups evaluators and organizers - good acting. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago


I know the "process". But, unconscious confirmation bias may still exist.

Dr. David E. M
67 months ago
Biases always exist and cannot get eliminated, the only option is to minimize them. - Patrick 67 months ago
YEP, thanks. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Focus Groups: Wounded, But Alive

I'm new to this platform, but I've been a moderator for 20 years. Thanks Dawn for this relevant question. I would note that embedded in Dawn's post were three possible outcomes: 1) access and abundance of data could replace focus groups (and other forms of qual); 2) access and abundance of data could increase the need for focus groups (and other forms of qual) by providing context; and 3) focus groups (and other forms of qual) could be replaced by online forms of qual.

The discussion drifted into a critique of focus groups as a method by a few, and validation of the method by several.

Ironically, I wish there were quantitative data on the incidence of pro vs con attitudes towards focus groups for two reasons. First, with those data it would be easy to make a bet on the future growth or contraction of the focus group. Second, it would help us gauge the extent to which the method has been wounded by the bashing it has taken for years. I accept that there are bad moderators out there who have contributed to this bad reputation. But I've never seen data that would shed light on whether it's a few bad apples or truly a rampant bad practice. Either way, the method itself has never been the problem. It is the unfortunate misuse of this valuable tool. I've always felt that moderating focus groups looks easy to the untrained eye. Unskilled Moderators jump into the room and think it will be easy.

Deb McDonald
65 months ago
Moderation is not easy - agreed - Dr. David E. 65 months ago

Focus groups are essentially group discussions which rely heavily on the interaction between group members and the relationship between the researcher and the respondents. Focus groups have been a dominant form of qualitative data collection in market research for more than 30 years.
History Of The Focus Group
Tony Blair may well be responsible for increasing public awareness of the focus group as a tool for collecting people’s views. The newspapers have been proactive in reporting his affinity for the methodology and some have even suggested he dares not make a move without testing out his intentions within a focus group.
Despite their recent shunt into the public eye over the past decade, focus groups are nothing new. Within the social sciences, they can be found detailed in the literature as far back as the 1920’s. This non-directive approach increased in appeal in the 1930s and 1940s as many sociologists were looking for alternative ways of conducting interviews as the traditional closed response choice questionnaires were being questioned.

65 months ago
Nice historical review - many thanks - Dr. David E. 65 months ago

Qualitative research even if done with a few, is better than mass surveys as you are able to probe deeper and what you are after is insight, not just the consensus.

Janelle Cua
48 months ago

I find focus group dead! It is rare that in days and age with social media and such you can get the objectivity desired when running focus group. I prefer survey anonymous and at the leisure of the individual surveyed. We and I never felt that this focus group strategy was productive. The idea of sitting behind a mirror glass like a criminal is stupid. If you do your job right and you remain nimble in your organization you won't need focus group you will be able to adjust everyday!

Normand Ciarlo
79 months ago
Normand, focus groups are not intended to be objective, nor are they intended to be representative. They often are used to screen ideas and develop hypotheses that can then be quantitatively evaluated. - Michael 79 months ago
The focus group you are referring to is rare no one today stays that objectives with social medias and such. - Normand 78 months ago
Normand Ciarlo focus groups never did do what quantitative does, but they did (and still do) serve a purpose. - Dawn 78 months ago
Agree. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Agree with most that focus groups don't perform or provide optimal information-typically. It can be an intentional strategy and could be useful but no longer holds the credibility of the past.

Too many focus group efforts are biased on both sides, too costly to hold as a live meeting, and in managed healthcare not really helpful any longer in this new marketplace. Virtual advisory boards and the like are probably just if not more useful.

Another aspect of this is the need for better education and not just typical pharma training on a topic since inadequate time is set aside for real learning on an issue or subject.

Randy Vogenberg, PhD
79 months ago
Randy Vogenberg, PhD in many ways virtual advisory boards are the e-version of focus groups. - Dawn 78 months ago
Agree, Dawn. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

This technique for listening to consumers and getting the range of their thoughts on a specific topic will always be relevant. Focus groups have inevitably unearthed insights, phenomenon, possibilities, leads, etc. when the topic has been clearly defined and client and agency both actively joined the process. Sometimes as clients we don't take the critical next step which is quantifying the extent of the ideas and insights in our target segment. When a few stray mentions around a subject validates our preconceived notions or closely held beliefs about the subject at hand, we mistakenly assume this insight or view to be held by and applicable to the entire segment. This can inevitably stunt the degree of learning from the focus groups and worse, lead us to take totally wrong strategy decisions which inevitably prove expensive. Moderator bias, and client bias too, are perhaps the biggest watch out. Per se the technique is solid. It's one more way to listen to the consumer first hand and carefully observe not just what the consumer says but assess non-verbal cues as well which gives a measure of sincerity, involvement, engagement, etc.

Elkana Ezekiel
77 months ago
Agree. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Focus group will always be a very relevant marketing tool. From the several enumerated advantages here, the company's learning in contact with the various focus group participants is very useful form point of view. Sometimes the obtained knowledge in these sessions suggests the creation of new products and services that were not initially planned. An issue associated with this topic and that has generated discussion is how to choose the members to participate in a focus groups. Are the techniques used scientifically robust and representative of the population? Should the participants in the focus group be remunerated?

Fernando Almeida
73 months ago
Pay to play and not very well. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

What is the future of in-person focus group (or one-on-one) interview research? Now that data is everywhere and easy to generate, will qualitative research like focus groups die? Or will they be needed more than ever to make sense of the never-ending data stream? Or will they simply be replaced by online qualitative tools?

Dawn, Here are my two cents worth of comments.

Yes and no. Group dynamics can bias the results especially where there are reserve personalities who are quiet or not forthcoming in a group so no to group dynamics. Yes to one-on-one interviews but throw in the opportunity to engage people not just in chats, but in video interactions, in kiosks (has novelty) in public places,

Where a new technology-driven opportunity comes into play, albeit somewhat biased, is the ability for a company who sells through Amazon to collect feedback through Alexa in-home communications. Alexa could engage with prospective and existing consumers with their opt in and approval to communicate in such a manner, and answer Alexa prompted questions for research or for feedback on a purchase. The Virtual Personal Assistant model is another potentially valuable tool especially of the consumer utilized Alexa in the path to purchase model. The same could be said of using Google Assistant when purchasing or searching for a product or service, for the Google VPA to ask if you are interested in participating in a research activity either via chat of linked via online voice capture and transcription.

Both Google and Amazon could sell the service to a manufacturer to test their product or service, mining the vast demographic and activity-based data collected during search and transactional actions. In both instances the profile of the participant is readily available (if allowed through opt in) to develop precise persona profiles related to the research findings.

Google can exploit "Polly" its interactive speech translation and Avatar voice/image, and Amazon utilizing existing Alexa technology to build the interactive platform. Utilizing either or both gives companies a new method to conduct research with some precision and predictive outcomes. Watch that space.

Sandy Waters
70 months ago
A mere data grab. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

My ten years of experience in market research leads me to believe that focus groups weren't very effective in the first place so, no, I would say they will "die." Both surveys and focus groups (i.e. the "bread-and-butter" of the consumer research industry methodologies) are laden with biases. The industry has tried to address this in a number of ways but in my opinion they are addressing the wrong thing.
Shortening survey length, providing mobile options, allowing online virtual focus groups, etc. all address cognitive stress and respondent fatigue but do nothing to address cognitive biases inherent in directly questioning human participants. Not only do you have the participants' own biases, but you also begin to incorporate the biases of the researchers themselves. Focus groups in particular have serious issues in this regard since the researchers/moderators must interact in real time (with traditional focus group sessions) which can impact the direction of the discussion -- not always in a good way. Furthermore, my experience with focus groups is that typically one or two participants dominate the group which leads to group think. The researcher/moderator is trained to handle this, but in my opinion it's like asking a jury to disregard a piece of evidence that wasn't presented appropriately according to the legal system. You can tell them not to, but you can't just make yourself "forget."
Direct questioning is never the best way to solicit for research data in my opinion. If you must work with human participants then I suggest you revisit grad-school psychology experimental design. Obscure the true nature of the study, or gamify the data collection process, etc.
To the point of using data, however, we can avoid a lot of the biases mentioned above. A savvy data analyst/scientist can tease out a lot of the same information that surveys/focus groups attempt to find. Only these methods are based on hard facts like actual purchase decisions not hypothetical "will you buy this product within the next 6 months" questions. Predictive modeling is designed to do just that -- predict future behavior from past behavior. Today, with techniques like natural language processing we can even tease out insights from written language like product reviews.
Don't get me wrong, data analysts/scientists can incorporate their own biases when analyzing data, but I'd say you are far safer than direct questioning. Follow up with me if you care to discuss further!

John Sukup
84 months ago
If the people who actually create ads for a living relied on objective analyses, we'd be confronted with hackneyed, boring advertising. Formulaic. Biases can contribute to powerful marketing messages as do subjective judgments and intuition. I know this because I've done it for 35+ years. Focus groups can provide ah-ha moments that lead to high impact campaigns as measured by objective data. - Brent 84 months ago
Quant=Incremental improvement; Qual=Transformational innovation - Thomas 83 months ago
John Sukup no doubt quantitative and data science is providing valuable insight. However, it seems like you may find insight without understanding "why". Qualitative can help with the "why" and not necessarily by asking directly. - Dawn 78 months ago
Well said, John. - Dr. David E. 67 months ago


Just consider tweets, followers, etc!

Dr. David E. M
67 months ago
How do tweets help? Which ones? Same for followers. Could you expand on your thought relative to replacing focus groups? Thanks. - Dawn 67 months ago
THINK: The last national elections where tweets were used to predict outcomes, - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
PS: All the tweets, focus group and opinion polls were WRONG - Dr. David E. 67 months ago
Is this very post a type of focus group? - Dr. David E. 67 months ago

Have some input?