Focus Group

In the applied social sciences, focus group discussions or group depth interviews are among the most widely used research tool. A focus group takes advantage of the interaction between a small group of people. Participants will respond to and build on what others in the group have said. It is believed that this synergistic approach generates more insightful information, and encourages discussion participants to give more candid answers. Focus groups are further characterized by the presence of a moderator and the use of a discussion guide. The moderator should stimulate discussion among group members rather than interview individual members, that is to say every participant should be encouraged to express his/her views on each topic as well as respond to the views expressed by the other participants. In order to put focus group participants at ease, the moderator will often start out by assuring everyone that there are no right or wrong answers, and that his/her feelings cannot be hurt by any views that are expressed since s/he does not work for the organization for whom the research is being conducted.

Although the moderator's role is relatively passive, it is critical in keeping the discussion relevant. Some participants will try to dominate the discussion or talk about aspects that are of little interest to the research at hand. The type of data that needs to be obtained from the participants will determine the extent to which the session needs to be structured and therefore just how directive the moderator must be.

Although focus group sessions can be held in many different settings, and have been known to be conducted via conference call, they are most often conducted in special facilities that permit audio recording and/or video taping, and are equipped with a one-way mirror. This observation of research process as it happens can be invaluable when trying to interpret the results. The many disparate views that are expressed in the course of the 1 to 2 hour discussion make it at times difficult to capture all observations on each topic. Rather than simply summarizing comments, possible avenues for further research or hypotheses for testing should be brought out.

Focus groups are normally made up of anywhere between 6 and 12 people with common characteristics. These must be in relation to what is being studied, and can consist of demographic characteristics as well as a certain knowledge base or familiarity with a given topic. For instance, when studying perceptions about a certain destination, it may be important to have a group that has visited it before, while another group would be composed of non-visitors. It must, however, be recognized that focus group discussions will only attract a certain type of participant, for the most part extroverts. (Read the set-up for a focus group on the perception and image of a destination in Southwestern Ontario.)

It is common practice to provide a monetary incentive to focus group participants. Depending on the length of the discussion and the socio-demographic characteristics of the participants being recruited, this can range anywhere from $30 to $100 per hour and more for professionals or other high income categories. Usually several focus groups are required to provide the complete diversity of views, and thus this is a fairly expensive option among the research techniques.

This incentive makes it easier to recruit participants, but can also lead to professional respondents. These are people who participate in too many focus groups, and thus learn to anticipate the flow of the discussion. Some researchers believe that these types of respondents no longer represent the population. See the following letter "Vision is blurred..." and response "Focus groups gain key insights..." that appeared in the Toronto Star, for instance.

For further information on focus groups, check out Smartpoint Research Focus Group and also see their links for additional background. You can even sign up to participate in a focus group yourself!

Related Readings (Stewart, D.W. & Shamdasani, P.N. (1990), Focus Groups: Theorgy and Practice. Newbury Park: Sage Publications; Kumar, V., Aaker, D.A. & Day, G.S. (1999). Essentials of Marketing Research. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; Zikmund, W.G. (1997). Exploring Marketing Research, 6th edition. Orlando: The Dryden Press)

THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 14, 1999 A27

THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 14, 1999 A27

Focus groups gain key insights into needs

Re Vision is blurred (Opinion page Aug. 5).

The opinion piece about focus group participation written by Michael Dojc contains many blanket statements based on supposition, with little to link it to quantifiable facts.

Dojc seems to attribute an apathy and incompetence to the recruiters who so willingly (in his view) allow a self-admitted liar such as himself to gain admittance to these groups.

He also seems to think that the recruiting industry is somehow at fault for not finding him out.

As is the case with many activities within this 3ociety, market researchers

have to rely to some degree on the inherent honesty and goodwill of everyday people.

Focus groups provide a unique and Important medium for marketers to gain key insights into target consumers attitudes, needs and wants in a dialogue that allows for in-depth probing.

And, in my observation, not only do Many focus group participants enjoy the opportunity to provide legitimate feedback about a product or service, most understand that their reactions, thoughts, and feelings may have a substantive impact on marketing activities, and as such they do not actively misrepresent themselves.

Of course, there are always a few "bad apples" out to milk the system for whatever they can get.

To weed out these people, Central Files, a centralized database of focus group participants, exists to maintain control over the frequency of respondent attendance, and to exclude undesirable respondents (defined as those who have been determined to have lied during screening, been overly disruptive during a group session, or those classified as professional respondents because they have attended many more groups than normal as a way to make extra money).

The ability of the system to function

effectively is directly related to the number of firms who participate.

The Professional Marketing Research Society, of which I am a member, strongly endorses that all researchers buy recruiting services from those firms who submit names to Central Files, to minimize the chance that fake respondents such as Dojc slip through.

Dojc's description of his interaction with focus group recruiters serves more to reveal his own moral inadequacies (Lying and cheating to make a few bucks) than to expose systemic problems in the research recruitment sector.


THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 5, 1999 A21

THE TORONTO STAR Saturday, August 5, 1999 A21

Vision is blurred at many focus groups


Many market, research groups are experiencing tunnel vision when it experiencing tunnel vision when it comes to focus group testing. By dipping and double dipping and triple dipping into the same pool of people again and again, focus groups are really working with a fuzzy lens.

I started attending focus groups when I was 16 years old and I always relished the experience of not only trying out a new product, but being paid for it as well. Though it didn't take long for me to rush through the surveys, get my cash and run.

Since then, I have been repeatedly called, approximately twice a month, by the various groups in the Toronto area and even more times since I turned 19.

But now the novelty has worn off and I am beginning to realize the sheer inconsequence of the groups.

I am not the only disenchanted frequent focus group attendee at these gatherings. It did not take long to notice that it is the same people who go every time.

We all know the drill so well that we are never refused entry by the faceless telephone operators who screen candidates.

I came up with this simple formula that has never failed me yet. The first thing you have to realize is that the person on the other end of the phone does not care about you, and while they may not believe everything you say, they will diligently write it down as if it were the gospel.

The following is an example of the typical screening process:

"Hi, this is Casey from X recruiting, would you be interested in participating in a focus group? It pays $30 for 45 minutes."

The answer to this question is an assured "yes" or "sure," depending on your personal preference both will do quite fine.

"First we have to see if you qualify. Have you done a focus group in the last three months?"

The answer is "no."

Even if you have attended one, they will never check their records and even if the same person called you the last time, it is highly unlikely they will remember, considering that they make hundreds of calls every day.

"Do you or any of your immediate family members work in advertising, television, journalism or media?"

Again the answer is "no" and the same aforementioned rules apply. "Which of the following have you purchased in the last week?"

The answer to any question of this type is always an affirmative "yes." Never take a chance. The one negative you give could be the qualifying question. It has happened to me-on numerous occasions and they never let you take it back.

"Actually I did buy a bottle of wine this week, .1 just remembered," I coyly added after being rejected. I was not even given the courtesy of a response as the dial tone rang in my ear.

Do not be concerned that the phone operator will find you strange for haying purchased every item they list off. -They really couldn't care less.

On many occasions they will ask you if you have any friends who would be interested in coming out. Always give them as many names as you can. It never hurts to be nice to people and who knows, maybe your friends will return the favour.

One of my friends invented a fictional twin brother and requalified under the inventive alias for the same focus group just one hour later than the one he had signed up for under his

own name. After finishing the first group, my friend went to the bathroom, put on a backwards Yankees cap, and went right back in.

Once you get in, the rest is child's play. The focus group supervisors will explain everything they want you to do in baby speak and they may even do it twice to make sure you understand that you should write your assigned number in the top left-hand corner of the survey sheet beside the word marked "number."

It's become almost a social event for my friends and I who now go in-groups and make bets as to who will get out first. We take pleasure in writing down funny answers to the stupid questions that are invariably asked, like, how an image of a certain beverage makes you feel. It's truly amazing that companies are throwing around millions of dollars in these so-called research ventures, where they inter view professional focus group attendees who couldn't care less about the product a company is hawking, even if it's one they use on a regular basis.

Michael Dojc is a student at McMaster University and an Intern at the Town Crier in Toronto.