Focus Group Advantages and Disadvantages

Focus group taking place
Rob Binns

Is a focus group the right market research approach for your business? Find out below, and receive tailored quotes from top market research agencies

Many businesses are unaware of the kind of benefits focus groups can offer. A key market research tool, focus groups can deliver deeper insights into how consumers interact with products, brands, and services.

But focus groups aren’t perfect, and they might not be the right market research method for your business.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of focus groups? Let’s take a look at our top seven reasons for and against using focus groups.

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a form of qualitative market research, in which a group of individuals come together to discuss specific topics. These could include brands, companies, or products, as well as prominent societal figures, such as politicians.

Focus groups are usually conducted on behalf of a business or organisation, with the help of a market research firm. The best market research companies specialise in recruiting, conducting, and evaluating focus groups, using tactics and knowledge gained through years of industry experience.

Focus groups are traditionally carried out in person and face-to-face. However, online focus groups (facilitated through Zoom or an online forum) are becoming an increasingly popular, more cost-effective alternative – particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

But is a focus group the right market research method for your business?

Focus group in session

Is a focus group right for your business?

Well, that’ll depend on the kind of insights you require, and your reasons for pursuing the avenue of market research. It’ll also depend on the type of topics you’re dealing with – focus groups, as you’ll see shortly, aren’t great for sensitive issues or potentially embarrassing topics.

So read on for our list of the six draw cards and six drawbacks of focus groups. Or, if you’re short on time, why not complete our quick, quote-finding questionnaire, and receive tailored offers and advice from leading marketing research companies in the UK?

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Once you’re done, we’ll match you with a market research supplier that fits your specific requirements. They’ll be in touch directly with tailored quotes, and you’ll be one step closer to a better understanding of your customers – and how they perceive and interact with your brand.

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The advantages of focus groups

1. Measure reactions, not just opinions

A key advantage of focus groups is that they take place face-to-face. Crucially, where this differs from research conducted through surveys or phone interviews is that you’re not only getting a person’s opinions, but their reactions, too.

The direct nature of focus groups allows you to easily measure how participants respond to the physical nature of products, packaging, or branding. You can glean key info from visual cues, such as your respondents’ expressions or gestures, as well as audial ones, like the tone, cadence, and volume of their voices.

Plus, unlike with surveys, focus groups don’t limit your insights to what the respondent wants, feels like, or is able to articulate in words. With focus groups, you’ll get not only a piece or two of the puzzle, but the whole picture.

2. Easily replicable

Focus groups aren’t a one-hit wonder. Their format, questions, and style can be replicated in different places, cultures, and communities to provide a scalable form of market research.

Sure, your focus group will rarely be an accurate ‘cross-section’ of your audience (and we'll discuss this below). But, because you'll be able to repeat focus groups again and again, they still allow for insights that can be seen as somewhat representative of wider society.

3. Time-saving

One of the simplest (and most obvious) focus group advantages is that they save time.

Rather than having to sit several different respondents down for individual interviews, you can facilitate a session with a number of people at once. Not only does this allow numerous viewpoints to emerge, but it helps cut down the time, hassle, and costs associated with data collection and aggregation.

Focus group smiling and engaged

4. Provides a hands-on approach… literally!

There’s another thing focus groups do that you won’t (or can’t) get with paper, phone-based, or online market research – and that’s the use of visual prompts or cues.

Not only does the use of visual stimuli allow you to provide a more dynamic approach to the research, but it enables your participants to physically engage with the product you’re testing.

Let’s say you’re gathering feedback on a new type of lipstick. How effective is an online survey going to be, or a phone conversation with a potential consumer? Not very. Now, consider a focus group.

People can try the lipstick on. They can pick it up – feeling the weight, style, and size of the packaging in their hands – and provide open, honest feedback about factors like colour and ease of application. Let’s face it – any comments you receive like this (in real-time) will be more useful than anything you get from a generic online survey!

5. More detailed insights into key questions

The more direct, face-to-face nature of focus groups allows you a richer sense of your customers’ needs and desires – particularly when the alternative is filling in a form, or ticking a few boxes.

Focus groups enable you to ask further questions and explore specific comments and reactions, leading to a deeper understanding of your customers’ motivations and pain points. It’s this ‘why’ – that intimate knowledge of what makes your audience tick – that will play a pivotal role in shaping the direction and strategy of your business in the months and years ahead.

6. Engaged participants

No one likes filling out surveys. They’re typically long and boring, and we tend to switch off when doing them.

It’s pretty hard to switch off in a focus group. Plus, though you’ll have to pay to get people to fill out surveys or take a phone interview, focus group participants are typically willing volunteers – and will often agree to take part for free. Why?

Well, many consumers will jump at the chance to be involved with a product or service before it hits the shelves – to get that coveted ‘first look’, or exclusive ‘sneak peek’. That means they’ll usually be not only more engaged than your average market research respondent, but may even be willing to do it for nothing.

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The disadvantages of focus groups

1. ‘Groupthink’

Famously coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984, groupthink’ describes a phenomenon where people feel a pressure to conform to the ideals or standards of a group – regardless of whether they actually share those views or not!

Despite being lifted from the pages of a book published over 70 years ago, ‘groupthink’ still plays a role in many focus groups today. For a range of psychological reasons, your participants may get sucked into thinking as a group – which, for obvious reasons, defeats the purpose of running a focus group at all!

2. Dishonest responses

Anyone who followed the US election last November – and witnessed first hand how badly the pollsters underestimated Trump’s popularity – knows how alarming the difference can be between what people say they will do… and what they actually end up doing.

Similarly, anyone who's ever run a focus group will be acutely aware of the impact that this disparity can have on accurate results.

While ‘groupthink’ operates largely on the level of the subconscious, dishonest responses are a conscious decision. Whether it’s the need to feel liked, respected, or simply avoid embarrassment, not all focus group participants will give you answers that reflect their true thoughts and feelings.

This makes focus groups unsuitable for topics that deal with more sensitive issues. If people aren’t willing to tell pollsters the truth about who they voted for, how likely will they be to open up to strangers about similarly touchy subjects?

3. Squeaky wheels get the oil

Focus group participant behaviour will, naturally, be influenced by who they are as people. Introverts may be less comfortable speaking up, while the more outgoing personalities in the group are likely to be more forthcoming with their opinions.

Basically, your results may not end up reflecting the feelings of the entire group, but rather the ‘squeaky wheels’ – that small, more vocal subset of respondents that can influence opinion and skew results.

Focus group arguing

4. It doesn't capture a cross-section of society

Just as the more active participants in a focus group can skew the results, so might the focus group itself not be representative of your wider target market.

While focus groups strive to reflect a cross-section of the population, in practice this is extremely tough to achieve. You should never assume that your group is a foolproof representation of your wider audience. Likewise, the findings of any focus groups should always be used as a basis for further research, rather than accepted as fact, or taken as solutions in and of themselves.

5. It’s expensive

There’s no sugarcoating it – focus groups are expensive. From planning the session and sourcing the participants, to hiring a good facilitator and (most importantly) interpreting the results, it’s not the cheapest form of market research around.

Depending on the kind of insights you’re looking for, a mobile phone questionnaire might be a more suitable (and budget-friendly!) option for your business.

6. Moderator bias

The effect of cognitive biases on our speech and action is well-documented – and it’s often a harmful one. But what about when that bias belongs to the person you’ve hired to run your focus group?

Whether intentionally or inadvertently, moderator bias can influence the exchange of ideas in a focus group. Moderators may ask leading questions, or unintentionally provide positive reinforcement for certain responses or comments. This can ‘snowball’, causing a group to come to inaccurate or unrepresentative conclusions.

Moderator bias may also lead to participants only sharing insights they feel will be perceived warmly by the facilitator, while avoiding sharing their true feelings for fear of ‘disappointing’ the person in charge.

Next steps

To focus group, or not to focus group? That is the question.

And as you’ve seen, the answer isn’t so simple. Focus groups are ideal for gaining deeper, more meaningful insights into who your audience is, how they behave, and what factors motivate their purchasing decisions. They save time, allow you to measure reactions (not just opinions), and are easily replicated across groups and locations.

However, they can also be expensive, and tough to get right. The responses you receive may be tainted by negative psychological phenomena such as groupthink, dishonesty, and bias, and individual personalities may adversely affect group decisions. Plus, questions still remain over whether focus groups accurately represent the wider community – and thus whether they offer anything of use.

Ultimately, there are both advantages and disadvantages to focus groups. Whether or not running one is right for your business will depend on several factors, such as:

  • Whether you’ve used a market research company before
  • What your primary market research goals are
  • What your preferred method of talking to your customers is
  • Your budget!

These factors are important, and that’s why we take all of them into account when you complete our 30-second quote-finding questionnaire. It’s designed to give us a better understanding of your business’ requirements, so we can match you with the right market research experts for you.

They’ll then be in touch with you directly to offer tailored market research advice and quotes – you just need to be based in the UK to be eligible. Hit the button below to get started, and happy researching!

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Written by:
Rob Binns
Rob Binns Senior Writer

Rob writes mainly about the payments industry, but also brings to the table industry-specific knowledge of CRM software, business loans, fulfilment, and invoice finance. When not exasperating his editor with bad puns, he can be found relaxing in a sunny (socially-distanced) corner, with a beer and a battered copy of Dostoevsky.