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Everything you need to know about focus groups

A focus group is a well-established market research tool that can deliver valuable insights. We’ve touched on this topic alongside other methodologies in previous articles, however, the aim of this guide is to serve as a one-stop-shop of detailed and practical information on running a focus group. You’ll also find out how SurveyMonkey can help you conduct more effective focus groups.

A focus group consists of 6–10 participants and has a duration of 45–90 minutes. The selected participants are asked non-leading and open-ended questions on a topic or topics to gather sentimental insights. In market research, the participants may be a sample of your customers or target market, for example. A moderator leads the focus group with the aim of bringing about a balanced discussion clearly aligned to the research interest.

Usually focus groups occur in person in a neutral setting, although they can also be facilitated via videoconference as an online focus group. Insights are generated from the participants’ answers as well as observations (for instance, body language). The data that emerges from focus groups is therefore qualitative data – that is, non-numerical – and thus works best for learning about thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Focus groups can be used to validate, for instance, the need for a new product or service or customer satisfaction.

Your research should be orientated towards gathering attitudinal or perspective-driven insights. Your aim is to get your participants’ points of view. Research topics which benefit from the opinions/ideas of your customers or target market, such as how to improve products or services, are well suited to focus groups.

Your questions should be open-ended, encouraging participants to speak for themselves. Questions that generate yes or no answers are to be avoided. In general, questions that start with ‘why’ or ‘how’ are most effective. Care must also be taken not to lead the participants to answer in a specific way, as this can result in biased or poor-quality data. Need inspiration? Check out SurveyMonkey’s questionnaire examples and survey templates, and for more guidance try SurveyMonkey Genius. Genius brings together AI, survey experts and machine learning to help you construct questions that fulfil your research needs.

Your selection of participants is vital to securing quality data. Sampling methods include voluntary, convenience, stratified (by a particular demographic of interest to you) and judgemental (participants you know you would like to include). If you opt for stratified sampling, SurveyMonkey Audience can help. Our extensive database makes reaching the optimum participants for your research quick and easy. Ideally, you need 6–10 participants per focus group. You may also run three or four focus groups to get better data.

Your focus group interview should take place in person or via videoconferencing (online focus group). In-person is often preferred. The location should be neutral, i.e. not a branded office. It should also be distraction-free. Adequate time should be given to participants if they need to do any preparation work before the focus group. If you are using a trained moderator to conduct the focus group, they need to be briefed on the research interest and questions to be asked.

Your moderator should stimulate a balanced discussion with participants. Participants should have equal time to speak. The predefined questions should be asked, but you should also leave room for flexibility. Your moderator may deviate from the question order to facilitate better discussion, for example. Prompts, follow-up or clarification questions can also be asked if they further the research interest. It is advisable to have a co-moderator who makes notes of the discussion and non-verbal cues from participants. Limit your focus group to a maximum of 90 minutes to avoid fatigue among your participants.

You will likely be able to draw some immediate conclusions from your focus group interview. To get the full picture, your recordings must be transcribed and undergo a content analysis. The content analysis involves breaking down responses into themes for reporting.

Cost-effective and time-saving in comparison to individual interviewsLogistically complex (an online focus group is less complex to facilitate)
Offers attitudinal insightsPossible bias (moderator and participants); lack of anonymity may lead to inaccurate data
Rich data yieldSample size is small; qualitative data analysis is time-consuming

A focus group is a semi-structured interview conducted with 6–10 participants led by a moderator. They are a well-established tool in market research, particularly in assessing the demand for a new product or service. Focus groups work best for gauging the thoughts, beliefs and feelings of a sample of your customers or target market. To run a focus group:

  • Define your research interest
  • Write your interview questions
  • Recruit your participants
  • Set up your focus group
  • Conduct your focus group
  • Analyse your data

Use SurveyMonkey to run more effective focus groups. Our tool SurveyMonkey Audience instantly connects you with the right participants to further your market research. Our survey templates and questionnaire examples provide a ready-made question bank. For further guidance, we also provide SurveyMonkey Genius, which uses AI, survey experts and machine learning to improve your questions.

A focus group is a moderated discussion typically involving 6-10 participants that furthers a research interest. A trained moderator conducts the focus group by asking participants semi-structured interview questions.

To run a focus group, you need a moderator and 6-10 research participants. The moderator facilitates a discussion that furthers the research interest by conducting a semi-structured interview. Focus groups tend to have a duration of 45-90 minutes.

The pros of a focus group are that they are time and cost saving compared to conducting one-to-one interviews and generate a rich data yield of participants’ thoughts, beliefs and feelings.

The cons of a focus group are inaccurate data, moderator bias and small sample size. Focus groups can be logistically complex to organise (although online focus groups are easier to facilitate), and qualitative data analysis is itself time-consuming.