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Whether to Use Focus Groups? Not all Focus Groups are the same.

  • Focus group discussion

Focus groups are a tried and tested qualitative research staple, having risen to prominence in the 1950s (1). Yet in today’s highly competitive environment relying on simple focus groups alone is limiting. If everyone just uses focus groups how can anyone possibly unearth new insights (2)?

Use multiple qualitative research methods

As insights can come from anywhere the recipe for success is to use mixed methods.  Both within focus groups, as well as other qualitative methods, to explore respondents from different angles, and in different ways. When designing research we employ four strategies to unearth new insights; we call these the four Cs: Context, Challenge, Collaboration and Calculation.

Understand context

To understand the context in which consumers make choices requires getting up close. For example, through observation and recording daily life. To understand who consumers are, their needs, behavioural influences and the processes involved in choosing to buy or consume a product. They are seldom what you think. For example, by exploring the customer journey (say in food) from discovery through to choosing, buying, storing, preparing, eating and using the left-overs and packaging helps reveal what’s important and nice-to-have at each stage. Including success factors such as convenience, ease of use and sustainability. Observing meal preparation also helps reveal product misconceptions or packaging inadequacies. And observing eating occasions helps explore social drivers and barriers. All pinpoints previously unconsidered product, positioning and promotion issues, and opportunities.

Provide challenging experiences

What consumers think and feel is based on their own frame of reference i.e. experiences, prejudices, and memory. Stimulating with new experiences helps uncover new, hidden or forgotten thoughts. Do this by taking them out of their comfort zones and giving new experiences. For example, giving consumers a new or different product to try, helps reveal new or unmet needs, or barriers to overcome. Combining loyal and lapsed consumers in a ‘conflict situation’ to debate what’s good, bad or plain ok about a product or service helps reveal barriers to usage. It can also shed light on the strength of views and whether, and if so, how these can be overcome.

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The Market Researchers creative market research methods allow us to dig deeper, uncover more meaningful answers to questions and tell the full story.

Encourage collaboration

No-one has a monopoly on good ideas and we live in a society with increasing free-flow of information and collaboration. Consumers’ familiarity with advertising and brands means that they are more ‘savvy’ and able to converse in ‘technical’ terms. This is a boon for researchers and marketers as it allows consumers to evaluate and create new marketing solutions. The concept of collaboration applies to both who, how to and what to research. The only limiting factor is our imagination! Involving technical experts or opinion leaders in research brings even more critical and creative thinking. It also brings the future closer.

Calculation adds substance

While qualitative research is good at answering ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions it is less effective at answering ‘how’ many or ‘how much’ questions. Using simple creative stimuli and scoring techniques overcomes the problem by providing a more substantive response. These allow people to think for themselves and mitigate the group ‘herd’ effect, and also distinguish the ‘really good’ or ‘poor’ from the ‘ok’ or ‘indifferent’. Thus spotlighting winning ideas and making sure research really helps marketing colleagues drive the business forward.

Research Inspiration

1. While focus groups are a qualitative research ‘default’, embrace the 4 Cs, to view your market research challenge in a new light and unearth more insights.

2. While quantitative and qualitative research were once different disciplines, and worlds apart, they are now blurring and overlapping. This presents new creative opportunities for researchers.

3. It is a myth that mixed research methods cost you more. When writing your next market research brief be clear about your aims, needs and guidelines – especially budgetary. This encourages agency ‘creativity’ and leads to more effective research ;-). For an inspiring response to your brief, get in touch.


(1) University of Columbia, History of Focus Group Research
(2) An insight is a ‘consumer need, want or belief that points to a new opportunity. Perhaps giving extra importance to something that has previously been ignored, forgotten or dismissed. Net the insight should shed new light and aid the business or brand. Source : Chapter 13, Managing Market Research, The Marketing Director’s Handbook.

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