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Focus Groups, Schmocus Groups?

by Teri Dahlbeck  |  
March 19, 2001

With the advent of the Internet, do we need traditional "in-person" research studies?

A Look at Qualitative Market Research


Formally defined, a focus group is a small (usually 6 to 10 people) in-person group session designed to elicit opinions about a particular research topic, often managed by an independent moderator. A focus group is a form of qualitative research, which elicits attitudes and opinions, as opposed to quantitative research, which is about measuring hard facts like data about the population being studied. Focus groups are gathered for research on everything from cars to restaurant service to Websites.

If you were a marketer before the days of Internet startups, you may have done some formal focus group testing. For those of you who haven't, let me summarize what it entailed, the best part being the M&M's (keep reading). Let's say there was an idea for a new widget for which initial market research showed great demand. Once primary and secondary market research was completed, overall budget approved, and a team appointed, the product manager and engineering team geared up a prototype. This prototype was either almost completely functional, or not functional at all (e.g. a block of wood) with an intro like, "Imagine, if you will...".

Then came the focus group. Often a formal survey company ran the group, and would apply a typical customer's profile that the product manager provided (age, income, geographic location, annual income, hobbies, job title and so on). The organizer performed research and made many telephone calls to secure multiple groups of about 10 people. They had to be willing to come to a conference room for less than a couple hours for about a hundred bucks and spill their guts as to why they'd buy it, and more importantly, why not.

Remember those detective movies where the bad guy sits in a bright room being badgered by some tough interrogator, while police and victims watch behind the two-way mirror? You've now imagined a focus group session, with the exception that the interrogator is usually much more amenable, the room is air conditioned and carpeted, and snacks are freely distributed to the focus groupies. The moderator often starts with an anonymous introduction about the company, and then lets each person experience the product individually. The moderator then goes around the room to solicit answers from a few questions generated beforehand in a discussion guide.

Behind that mirrored window is a dimly-lit room where the 'key management team' (usually from product marketing and product management) listen intently to all the comments and intonations made by at least 3 separate focus groups while eating bowls and bowls (and bowls) of M&M's and other junk-food provided by the host (at a not insignificant markup).

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Teri Dahlbeck is the cofounder of

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