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White Paper: The Use of Focus Groups in Research December 2008

About This Report

Numbers Count: Cost-conscious consumer researchers are increasingly using small samples of people in focus groups as a substitute for statistically reliable random-sample or national-probability-sample surveys.

Methodology Matters: Depending on the goal of the research project, focus groups may or may not be appropriate as a method for data collection.

Misleading Data: Focus groups yield qualitative data that, because of a lack of control in sampling and responding, does not generalize to populations.

Focus-group interviews have become the research method of choice for many marketing, legal, and political professionals. In comparison with other methods, such as nationally representative surveys, single focus-group interviews can be very cost-effective and often provide insights about people that are of considerable depth. For example, in addition to providing information about the appeal of new products or ideas, focus groups can provide information about language use and about nonverbal behavior and may often include colorful anecdotes from interview participants.

The undeniable popularity of the focus-group methodology appears to have resulted in a practice of using the method almost indiscriminately, regardless of whether it is appropriate to address a given research question. Moreover, many companies often rely on focus groups as their only method of inquiry, ignoring methods more appropriate for answering the research question at hand. These practices suggest that, perhaps, some confusion about the overall method, its potential pitfalls, and when best to use it is fairly widespread.

White Paper: The Use of Focus Groups in Research points out several key considerations for companies conducting focus-group research and provides some words of caution. The paper also suggests ways in which companies can decide whether focus groups are appropriate for the research task at hand. The overall goal of this paper is to stimulate practitioners to become more selective in the use of the method.

Table of Contents

Procedural Considerations and Words of Caution 2
Caution 1: Interpret Focus Groups at the Group Level 2
Key Summary Points 1 3
Caution 2: Screening by Demographics Alone Can Limit Sharing and Distort Focus-Group Norms 3
Key Summary Points 2 5
Caution 3: Do Not Necessarily Trust What People Report in Focus Groups 6
Key Summary Points 3 7
Caution 4: Focus-Group Findings Do Not Generalize to Populations 7
Key Summary Points 4 9
Focus Groups: Recommendations 10