Essay Preview: Focus Groups
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Why market research?
The purpose of market research is to accurately identify target markets for a specific product and/or service, and determine how to maximize the appeal of your product/service to the identified target market. Traditional market research uses a survey method to help understand the mindset of the consumer. For example: If we are marketing a brand new breakfast cereal “Fruit Loops Plus”, we may want to know who the key decision maker is when it comes to purchasing breakfast cereal. Is it the child, the mother or the father? If the mother is the primary decision maker, we will want to know as much as possible about her decision-making process. For example: We may ask the following questions:
When it comes to selecting breakfast cereal what is your primary consideration?
Position on shelf
Your child is most likely attracted to the cereals?
Shape and color of cereal
Position on shelf
What if the highest response rate of question number one is nutrition and question number two is crunchy texture? Knowing that both mother and child need to be satisfied consumers, we will focus our advertising on the nutritional benefits of the cereal and its
crunchy texture. There is little doubt that traditional market surveys are valuable in that survey questions can reach a large survey size giving it a high confidence level.
This is why some researchers are also turning to Internet focus groups. Like surveys, they can reach a much larger audience than traditional focus groups. In 2004, Pepsi launched a new cola called “Pepsi Edge”, which tasted similar to Pepsi, but with half the calories. The project was given the go ahead after a positive response from a large focus group. However, after an extensive online focus group with 80-100 people, it indicated little interest at the consumer level.1 In 2005, Washingtons Mellman Group, conducted on-line focus groups to assess peoples attitudes about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nominee, John G. Roberts, Jr. The many advantages cited by the Mellman Group, included size of audience, a broad based demographic and speed of response, which could not be ascertained with a traditional focus group.2 Broad based surveys and online survey/focus groups do tend to reach a much larger audience, and Internet based focus groups do have the advantage of speed.
There are additional concerns about traditional focus groups. First, they have a tendency to be influenced by one or two dominant participants, thus making the output very biased. However, a good group facilitator should be able to resolve this potential problem. Second, focus groups can be problematic when dealing with sensitive topics. Under this scenario, participants may be reluctant to share information out of fear of embarrassment. However, through a skilled facilitator, focus group members may be made aware of the fact that they share the same sensitivities. Third, focus group output cannot be validated. In other words, it is not subjective to statistical measurements, which provide a method of validation. However, if focus groups are used in a manner that accounts for demographic, geographic and
1Shoot the Focus Group, Marketing, page 1, November 14, 2005
2ibid, page 2
psychographic diversity, and if there is a high degree of consistency in focus group responses, then the process can be regarded as valid. Yet, in the big scheme of market research, focus groups cannot reach as large an audience as surveys or Internet research/focus groups, which still calls its validity into question.3 Fourth, critics of focus groups often cite its artificial environment. In other words, focus group members realize that they are being observed. This fish bowl mentality often affects their behavior, and they are more concerned about acting in a specific manner, than they are about expressing an objective opinion. Fifth, focus groups are usually limited to a handful of cities. This is due in large part to cost considerations, as well as time considerations. Therefore, critics will often point to the fact that this limits the universal application of focus groups. However, focus group advocates point to the fact that the location of the focus group is irrelevant, so long as members represent diverse geographic, demographic and psychographic groups.4
There are those who favor the use of Internet focus groups because they have the advantage of reaching a broader and more universal audience, and they can produce timely results. However, critics of Internet focus groups point out certain key deficiencies. First, the Internet participant does not have the advantage of group dynamics. Interaction among participants often gets the creative juices flowing. Participants often react to the ideas of others and then use them as building blocks to formulate ideas and consensus opinions. Second, the client company who sponsors the focus group cannot benefit from observing the group dynamic or the nonverbal responses of participants, including facial expressions, body movements and voice fluctuations, which can add or subtract from the validity of participant responses. Third, it is also impossible through Internet focus groups to gauge the participants
3Groups Plus Inc., Quirks Marketing Research Review, page 4, June, 2003
4ibid, page 5
level of attention to detail. Whereas, in a focus group, a skilled facilitator can keep the group focused and on target.5 Fourth, Internet focus groups cannot be exposed to external stimuli. In other words, focus group members can view product prototypes in a three dimensional manner, while also observing the reactions of their group counterparts. Fifth, Internet focus groups do not have the benefit of a skilled facilitator to lead discussions while keeping the group motivated and stimulated.6
One key criticism of both traditional and Internet focus groups