Focus Group Testing: What It Is and How to Run a Focus Group Test

Mathew Zein Author

Last updated on September 14th, 2023

Mathew Zein
Focus Group Testing

In one of the American comedy films, Mel Gibson got the gift of reading women’s minds, and it allowed him to find out what women wanted in a perfect man. Nowadays, every business owner wishes for that same gift to discover what clients want and how they would react to a specific product. 

Although mind reading is impossible, focus group product testing made the process relatively available.

We all search for a reliable method to test an idea in a safe setting before releasing it to the public. It helps find out about others’ opinions, suggestions, and thoughts on an issue of importance. 

Whether it’s a company preparing to launch a new product and wants to explore potential market reactions or an academic center conducting research and wants to collect people’s thoughts, focus group testing is the solution.

This article will thoroughly introduce you to focus group testing, why and when to use it, the practical steps to run it, and common mistakes to be aware of. And as a bonus point, we’ll also introduce an alternative research method to focus group testing, for feedback gathering.

Focus Group Testing

When launching a new product, the number one question to pop into one’s mind is, are people going to buy it? 

The answer depends on complex intersected factors, like ease of use, consumer needs, benefits, pricing, side effects, and others. Focus group testing is an effective way of determining market demand by understanding the wants, needs, and preferences of the potential target buyers.

For an entrepreneur or a company to better predict customer behavior, a group of hypothetical potential customers has to be questioned about the product before its release. If that group is accurately selected to represent the target audience, the discussions help make better decisions.

If you are hesitant about focus group marketing effects, maybe it would change your mind to know that in 1950 focus groups led Mattel to create Barbie, one of the first adult-looking and worldwide successful toy dolls. As the concept of focus groups as a research method started back in the 1940s, let’s dive deeper into its definition.

What Is a Focus Group?

Reading so far, you might be thinking, what is focus group testing? It’s a qualitative market research discipline that aims to gather ideas, attitudes, points of view, and suggestions toward a specific topic. It is done via one moderator and a group of 6 to 10 participants (depending on your needs and the specifics of your product, this number can vary). 

The participants are carefully selected to ensure they represent a microcosm of the target customers. 

The moderator runs the session neutrally to avoid biased answers, and the dialogue takes place about the product from different orientations. The session usually lasts for a few hours, and the participants can provide valuable information and suggestions if they are an authentic representation of the target audience. 

Focus group testing is not limited to products and services but extends to all fields of life. For example, politicians use it to measure how effective their campaigns and speeches would be, and lawyers use it to ensure their pleading will convince the jury.

Why Use a Focus Group?

Traditional methods, such as questionnaires and surveys, are much different from focus group testing. They can’t probe people’s feelings, thinking, and suggestions in a comprehensive and detailed manner as the focus group testing method does. 

According to research by Joseph Stromberg, focus groups “expose designers and marketers to the relevant context of real people’s lives.”

Product focus group testing follows an intelligent strategy to explore opinions, recommendations, directions, attitudes, and perceptions about a product. It provides feedback to update the product features, marketing campaign, sales strategy, pricing, or related aspects or define the product-market fit

The benefits of focus group testing are many, and we can summarize the most important ones:

  • Effective results within a few hours.
  • Feedback is noted directly from potential customers.
  • Diversified group of participants to reflect different perceptions.
  • Confirm if a product meets requirements with comments and explanations.
  • Find out how people make buying decisions about a specific product.
  • Discover new approaches, plans, ideas, and possible updates from an external observer outside the team.

When to Use Focus Group Testing?

Utilize focus group testing whenever there is a need for directions. Whether at the early stages of the project or after the prototypes are ready. Moreover, it can be used even after launching the product to plan an update

For example, in 2014, a curvier Barbie doll got featured on the cover of Time magazine and in U.S. markets because of focus groups. It was after 64 years of the initial Barbie release. 

However, using focus group testing should never eliminate the role of other qualitative research tools like surveys, for example. It functions perfectly in tandem with other tools, not as a replacement. 

Running a Focus Group Test

There are specific rules to make a focus group test successful and benefit from the results. Otherwise, it might turn into chaos or a meaningless general discussion. 

Set the Objectives and Goals

Before thinking about how to run a focus group, settings and preparations are essential. The first step is defining the objectives and goals

For example, suppose a company intends to launch a new smartphone. In that case, the session’s topic could be about the device’s shape and design only, and then subsequent sessions might come next to discuss other issues such as the performance and the software.

The first stage of holding a group focus test is to develop a plan and a specific goal regarding the issue to be discussed. Still, if a purpose is not specified and the discussion is left to take a general form, the session will end with useless ideas and suggestions that cannot be applied. 

Setting a clear objective narrows the discussion to a specific concept and eliminates the chances of wasting time on distracting topics. This way, the moderator can take the lead and direct the conversation without interfering with the participants. 

Find a Target Focus Group

How to run a successful focus group test if you don’t have appropriate participants? Choosing the group of participants is just as important as setting the goal and defining the session’s topic. 

It’s challenging because this small group of people will represent your larger target audience. Selecting the wrong participants can result in inaccurate data and insights you don’t really need. 

The selection process involves various factors like age, gender, education, interests, and experience. 

Practical ways to find a target focus group:

  • Advertising on social media platforms with detailed preferences.
  • Emailing regular clients from a company’s database.
  • Offering rewards and incentives to encourage others to participate.

Focus On the Main Talking Points

Running a focus group test requires an experienced moderator, and the questions should be clear and specific. If participants were given the freedom to talk without supervision, they might get sidetracked and go off-topic. As far as the process goes, we recommend the following structure:

  • Welcome the participants and have them introduce themselves.
  • Establish the basic rules for the discussion and make them clear for everyone.
  • Ask questions one by one, observe, and collect thoughts about them.
  • Summarize the ideas after each discussion.

Remember that focus group testing is not about questions and answers but about watching how people naturally react to the topics a moderator raises. 

A moderator should keep the conversations related to the topic. Furthermore, be well prepared before the session starts with a list of the best questions to ask a focus group. For example, you can use such questions to start the discussion about the topic:

  • What are your feelings about today’s topic?
  • What do you already know about this product?
  • What came to your mind when you first saw the product?
  • What do you love the most about it?

Facilitation Process

After establishing who’s going to participate in the focus group, it’s now time to figure out how and when the focus group testing will happen:

  • Identify the time appropriate for all participants.
  • Choose a neutral location for the session - outside your company grounds.
  • The duration should range between an hour and three hours.
  • Team assistants must be available during the session to help with admin tasks.

The moderator should also divide the roles for the team members, like appointing one to be the moderator’s assistant, and shall be responsible for note-taking during the session. In addition, the moderator has to choose another one to be responsible for recording the session and one for asking questions, etc.

Finally, the moderator is solely responsible for preparing discussion topics, preparing a motivating introduction, proactive questions that may be open-ended, and think-back questions to get the contributors involved, and should be a good listener. Moreover, the moderator should know how to analyze focus group findings efficiently.

Analyzing Stage

When the session ends, the moderator collects the recordings and notes from assistants and adds personal insights about the topic discussed in the focus group testing. 

The next step would be analyzing all these findings and understanding how to make the best use of them. Therefore, an analyzer or the moderator conducts a comprehensive analysis. This step is done to select the appropriate suggestions for consideration and employ the new ideas to serve the proposed goals regarding the target issue.

Focus Group Testing Mistakes to Pay Attention To

There are many focus group testing mistakes a moderator should avoid from the beginning to save time and cost. We will walk you through the answer to the critical question you have in mind. What are the 3 problems of focus group testing?

How the Groups Are Made Up

There are multiple advantages and disadvantages to focus group testing. However, the benefits compensate for all the effort it takes. 

Most important is following the correct process to build the group. Inviting participants to join the focus group should be strict and accurate. Otherwise, the results will be inconclusive or unusable. Participants should be potential customers and belong to the target market audience.

For example, a focus group for a cosmetics company has to include participants of a specific age, income, and interest. Inviting, for example, females who don’t care about makeup is a waste of time. Similarly, inviting females who care but can’t afford to buy the product you’re offering won’t bring added value.

Another example is a focus group for a truck manufacturer. Participants should be males, truck drivers of different ages, and have a certain level of driving experience, like five years or more. Inviting men who haven’t driven a truck before is a big mistake and jeopardizes the whole testing.

Therefore, building the focus groups is as important as the discussions and the results. Committing a mistake at this point eliminates all the advantages.

Focus Group Tester Personality Type

Focus group testing participants are responsible for expressing concerns, suggesting improvements, and discussing ideas from different points of view toward the subject matter. 

Simply choosing the correct participants from the target audience is not enough because their personality has to be considered. If that isn’t addressed, the session will end with no fruitful results.

There are specific personality types to be considered when selecting participants. One of the common mistakes is not giving much attention to this part. It results in a weak focus group despite accurately representing the target audience. There are some main traits every person in a focus group testing must have:

To Be Communicative

A group tester must be reasonably communicative, both written and oral. The tester must be able to discuss topics with different personalities, such as those with positive or negative opinions

Imagine a focus group with introverts who don’t like sharing or expressing their thoughts. Even if they were the perfect fit as a potential customer, they wouldn’t provide any help as testers.

To Be Curious

Curiosity is what drives research and knowledge. When the moderator asks a question or raises an issue for discussion, curious participants will look for details. Focus group testing aims to get people involved to make better decisions. Therefore, curious people will ask and participate better than others.

To Be Intuitive

The product development stage is a crucial part of the testing process. Here, testers need to have an intuition for what needs fixing or developing in order to make sure that they deliver high-quality results as quickly and efficiently as possible! This intuition comes from instinct and the practical experience gained about the product.

Using Only One Group of Focus Testers

Narrowing the whole experiment to one group of focus testers will not provide sufficient results. The moderator must form several focus groups to discuss the same topic or different related aspects. Furthermore, diverse focus groups can represent different target audience segments since one group may not be enough to represent all potential customers.  

An Alternative to Focus Group Testing

Now, there are lots of instances where a focus group might not be enough on its own to cover your company’s or product’s needs. And this section is to offer you a solution for those cases.

Let’s say your product is intended or better suited for global consumption. Traveling to every single country your potential customers might reside in would be a logistical nightmare, if not impossible.

Moreover, no matter how good of a job you do at finding the perfect group of people that represent your target audience, you’re still missing out on a very important distinction - they are not, at least yet, your actual customers and you have absolutely no guarantee that they will ever be. 

So product creators have 2 options here: stick with a dozen of focus groups to get the general picture, or use - a platform that easily allows you to reach international audiences and get real-time insights about their preferences and purchasing intentions. is ideal for testing every aspect of your product - from concept and angle, to design and usability, to pricing and audiences. The reason these insights will be incredibly accurate is because the testing is done in an online shopping environment where people actually give you their emails, a small deposit to secure the product, and their invaluable feedback in a survey.

You’ll have the chance to make multiple changes to the messaging, pricing, USPs and more - and see how each change affects consumer behavior. 

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All things considered, focus group testing has proven to be a reliable method to support product launches at various levels. It helps decision-makers avoid falling into false predictions and provides a direction for other qualitative research tools. 

Companies worldwide are adopting this method to understand their audience better and provide products and services closer to what the customer expects. Finally, from Gibson’s movie, we quote, “If you know what women want, you can rule!” Similarly, if you know what customers want, you can rule!

Alternatively, you can pair or substitute focus group testing with more real-life and data-driven research methods, like to get more actionable feedback at any stage of product lifecycle.

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