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Focus group vs. interview : what is best for your market research ?

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How should you conduct your market research ? Should you go for face-to-face interviews or for focus groups ? We often get that question from customers and we often find it difficult to convince customers that focus groups may not be the best qualitative technique around. Here’s why.

Focus group alone are not sufficient

Focus groups were born after WWII and emerged from the work of Merton and colleagues. Historically they have not been conceived as a stand-alone qualitative technique. Rather it was thought as an additional methodology to triangulate results.

According to their authors focus groups were suitable for the elicitation of details that might otherwise be overlooked. But their authors also recognized that the discussion may quickly be derive to irrelevant issues and suffer the dominance of some members of the focus group.

Influence, dominance and time issues

Authors generally agree that participants in focus groups do NOT speak or answer questions in the same way than they would in an individual face-to-face interviews. What is said before, how it is said, by whom, does influence what participants might say. This is especially true when you have dominiating characters in the group. Kidd and Parshall (2000) wrote it quite nicely : focus groups “create a far less homogeneous texture of discourse than one finds in individual interviews.”

Moreover the time available in focus groups for each participant to deepen his/her thoughts is rather limited. Focus groups will use last around 90-120 minutes and gather an average of 6 to 8 people. If you exclude the speech time of the moderator, this leaves on average between 11 and 20 minutes speaking time per participant. Compare it to an individual interview and you immediately understand what’s the best option to get the most out of respondent. The interviews we conduct at IntoTheMinds have an average length of 70 minutes.

The results depend on the moderator

The success of a focus group depends on the skills of the moderator. Besides the very limitation of the method itself, there is also a risk to obtain bad results due to the incompetency of the moderator.

Focus groups are NOT cheaper than individual interviews

Market research firms have popularized focus group as an affordable method to study customers’ needs. The problem is that most market researchers don’t follow the rules and as a consequence produce cheap results. In a vast majority of the cases, the treatment of focus groups is poor and conclusions are not based on a real objective analysis; rather the market researchers will use his/her notes to draw conclusions.

As Kidd and Parshall (2000) write :

To some extent, the increased interest in and the use of focus groups are based on pragmatic issues of time and cost efficiency relative to individual interviews. However, these presumed savings may be illusory. Properly conducted focus groups are not necessarily inexpensive; unless one is in the business of conducting and analyzing focus groups, the time saved in interviewing may be lost in recruitment, logistics, and trying to make sense out of data that are complex and messy.

If you hire a market research firm to carry out focus groups, make sure to ask them how they will handle and analyze the data. We, at IntoTheMinds, transcribe focus groups, code them and provide mappings of the most important topics expressed.

When should  you use focus groups

You should always prefer individual interviews except in one case. When you want to understand the dynamics between members of a social group, focus groups are the best way to proceed. Imagine for instance that you want to study the purchase decisions made in a family. These decisions are likely to be influenced by children. Having both parents and children in the same room to discuss their purchase behavior is therefore of great interest.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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