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)