When to use focus groups: Getting to the heart of what your customers think, and why

In my communications and PR work with various companies and organizations, I am always asking the question: “Do you know what your customers, stakeholders or employees really think, and why?”

Every time this question comes up, my next question often is, “Have you thought about doing focus groups?” For those that have never done focus groups, there’s often a list of reasons why they haven’t pursued it, and many times, the decision to not do focus groups is based on ignorance. They haven’t had the opportunity to see the value of spending the time and money, and the resulting benefit focus groups can bring.

PR and communications is about managing and shaping perceptions, and nothing makes that job easier than having good qualitative research to draw from. Given this reality and the hesitancy of some organizations to go “behind the glass”, I thought it was time to talk one-on-one with Sandra Johnston of Johnston Research, an incredibly gifted and experienced focus group moderator based in Edmonton. Sandra has facilitated nearly 600 focus groups over the course of her career and I have had the opportunity to sit behind the glass, watching Sandra work, many times. I call her gifted because her ability to be objective, curious and get inside people’s heads is a talent you don’t come across often.

So let’s get inside Sandra’s head (so much fun to turn the tables on her!) and learn the when and the why behind focus groups.

When should an organization use a focus group vs. one-one interviews?

It really comes down to group dynamics – and whether or not you want them.

Focus groups are most effective when the topic of discussion will benefit from dialogue between respondents, encouraging them to react to and comment upon one and other’s opinions. Critics of qualitative research will often condemn focus groups because of this very feature; their concern being that one or two people can sway the opinions of others. In my opinion, this is actually one of the strengths of focus groups. Of course, the questioning process needs to ensure that we first hear a respondent’s unbiased and uninfluenced opinion. I often use written exercises at the beginning of a group to ensure those uninfluenced opinions are captured. But to the critics of qualitative research, I will say that in real life, other people’s opinions influence our own points of view all the time. It is important for research to capture that shift, examining what points of view are influential and have credibility so that we can understand what will influence your target audience over time.

Focus groups are also very easy for clients to watch. It is very illuminating to hear firsthand the opinions of your customers or stakeholders.

One-on-one interviews are appropriate when you want to limit the influence of other’s opinions or when the topic or material is sensitive or personal and research respondents may be hesitant to share their opinions freely in front of others. One-on-one telephone interviews are often the best solution when dealing with a group that is spread out geographically and where bringing folks together simply wouldn’t be feasible. They are also advantageous when dealing with a target audience that have full schedules and would be difficult to bring together at the same time, in the same place.

It seems so obvious that companies should know first hand what their clients or target audiences are thinking.  What do you think holds companies back from using qualitative research?

I think that could be a lot of different things – unfamiliarity with the process or with suppliers.

I think there can also be some arrogance involved; that they already know what clients or target audiences are thinking. In fairness, most people who hire me already have a pretty good understanding of what or how their customers or target audiences think. The advantage of qualitative research is that it allows you to prioritize your next steps. For example, if company is thinking about changing how a product is offered, they likely know what many of the main points of resistance will be and what will be the appealing features. Research will help to identify which are the most important or key issues to the customer, and will support the client in developing the most effective, targeted communications to support and motivate their customers through the change.

The other thing that can happen is they have had some bad experiences with research. As with anything – there are good and bad researchers out there. Often the people who are really hesitant about conducting qualitative research have worked with bad researchers in the past.

What’s the value of qualitative feedback? How do you see it contributing to a company’s bottom line?

At its most basic, qualitative feedback provides insights into why people think what they do. While traditional quantitative research provides statistically reliable data on what people think, qualitative research gives a more rich and deeper insight into the perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes which factor into and influence the opinions that people have.

Clients are often too close to and familiar with the issue to be able to appreciate it from the customer’s or target audience’s point of view. Any type of research introduces the objectivity that is often needed.

How does it contribute to the bottom line? Well, I think it makes you smarter. You make better, smarter, well informed decisions, which allows you to be more effective.

As a facilitator, how do you prevent group think?

I use a lot of written work early in the focus group. Respondents may have short assignments to complete in advance of attending the focus group. Or I may have them write down their answers to my question for the first part of the group, giving them the opportunity to document their first reactions to things before we chat as a group.

Group think happens when a group of people working together develop unrealistic solutions to an issue or problem. The thing about research though is that it isn’t the problem solver. It informs the problem solving process. Even if some group think starts to happen in a group – what I am really watching for and trying to understand is – what problem is the group trying to address. Sometimes their solutions are in fact great. Often though, their ideas aren’t realistic because they simply don’t have enough information to understand the problem in its full complexity, or they don’t appreciate the limitations that are present in solving the problem. For me, the magic isn’t in the solution or ideas they come up with, it is in understanding why they come up with the solutions they do.

Many companies think they can facilitate their own focus groups, particularly with employees.  What are the benefits in using someone from the outside?

This is a 3 part answer.

Skill: The first concern is that you appoint someone to do the focus groups who aren’t skilled. They lead respondents, they don’t know how to manage a room to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate, or they let their own opinions influence the discussion.

Bias: If the researcher is known to respondents, that will also influence how the respondents react to the issues being discussed and how candid respondents will be. Obviously, having someone of seniority asking employees to be candid may not be effective (What if they want to disagree with the boss’s pet project?). Of course, the more direct the connection between the facilitator and the topic being discussed (is it the facilitator’s pet project that you are discussing) the more likely that respondents won’t be candid and the more likely that the facilitator won’t be open to all opinions. Also, there are personality differences in the workplace that can interfere with focus group communication.

Assumptions and objectivity: I think that one of the most dangerous aspects of having someone “on the inside” facilitate focus groups is “assumed knowledge.” The facilitator either assumes they understand the person’s point of view and doesn’t take the time to explore opinions, or the facilitator assumes respondents have the same level of knowledge and understanding he/she does. In both cases, the process won’t get to the depth of knowledge that makes qualitative research valuable.

As a professional researcher, I cannot have anyone I know acting as a participant (even if I only know them by the smallest acquaintance – I had to dismiss my Pilates instructor a while ago, for example) because of the concern that our association could influence his/her responses. It could influence how I conduct the research or it could influence how other’s share their opinions.

Can you give us an example of a focus group where the feedback dramatically and positively changed the direction of the client?

With the communications based work I do, a client will often come with 2 or 3 different ideas. Rarely is one idea perfect (although that does happen). More typically, there will be elements of all 3 campaigns that resonate with the target audience for different reasons. With that information in hand, together with a strong understanding of what the communication is intending to accomplish (what messages are most important), a fourth campaign is usually created – using the best elements from the 3 tested executions. I am not talking about watering down the creative to create a messy mix of the three campaigns, but rather understanding what are the gems and insights, understanding what really resonates with and influences the target audiences, and finessing one execution to incorporate those effective messages.

Of course, there a lots of examples of cleverly designed icons, logos, taglines, URLs that seem very smart and witty heading into the testing, only to find out that they communicate a very different message than the one that was intended.

I am confident saying that the more certain a client is about knowing how their audience is going to respond, the more likely they are to be wrong. I would say I see the most potential for error when an older generation is assuming they understand or know how a younger generation will think or react (and that is probably good parenting advice too).

What are four interesting things you have learned facilitating focus groups?

  1. People love to share their opinions. One of the best quotes after a focus group was a respondent who came up to me and said, “Thank you – this was great. It was really interesting. It is very rare to have someone ask your opinion and then really want to hear it.”
  2. Qualitative researchers have to have a genuine interest in people’s opinions. You cannot fake it, you cannot disengage or being paying only half attention. This is a human interaction (even if facilitated through technology) and respondents need to feel they are sharing their opinions with someone who is interested in them and respects them. When I have clients who tell me about poor experiences they have had with qualitative research, it often is the result of working with a moderator who is more concerned about “getting through the questions” rather than seeking to understand the issue.
  3. I like working with people who like doing research. I have yet to have a client that I haven’t enjoyed working with.
  4. In an oval boardroom table, the person who sits to my right will be the pleaser and often spends time trying to validate other’s opinions around the table. The person sitting to my left is often a natural observer and wants to hide a bit. They will share their opinion, but it takes them a bit longer to be comfortable speaking out. The person at the far end of the table is often the sceptical person who may want to challenge my power. When I do a parent’s group followed by a group of their children, it is amazing how often parents and children will unknowingly pick the same place at the table.


  • Jennifer – thanks for the great blog post and for your continued interest in qualitative research. You are a pleasure to work with!

    January 30th, 2012
    • Jennifer Fisk

      Thank you for sharing your insight, Sandra!

      January 30th, 2012

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