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A focus group is a form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked about their attitude towards a product, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. In the world of marketing, focus groups are an important tool for acquiring feedback regarding new products, as well as various topics.
In particular, focus groups allow companies wishing to develop, package, name, or test market a new product, to discuss, view, and/or test the new product before it is made available to the public. This can provide invaluable information about the potential market acceptance of the product.
Also, in the social sciences and urban planning, focus groups allow interviewers to study people in a more natural setting than a one-to-one interview. In combination with participant observation, they can be used for gaining access to various cultural and social groups, selecting sites to study, sampling of such sites, and raising unexpected issues for exploration. Focus groups have a high apparent validity - since the idea is easy to understand, the results are believable. Also, they are low in cost, one can get results relatively quickly, and they can increase the sample size of a report by talking with several folks at once. (Material based on: Marshall and Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research, 3rd Ed. London: Sage Publications, 1999, p. 115)
However, focus groups also have disadvantages: The researcher has less control over a group than a one-on-one interview, and thus time can be lost on issues irrelevent to the topic; the data are tough to analyze because the talking is in reaction to the comments of other group members; observers/ moderators need to be highly trained, and groups are quite variable and can be tough to get together. (Ibid.)
Traditional focus groups
In traditional focus groups, a pre-screened (pre-qualified) group of respondents gathers in the same room. They are pre-screened to ensure that group members are part of the relevant target market and that the group is a representative subgroup of this market segment. There are usually 8 to 12 members in the group, and the session usually lasts for 1 to 2 hours. A moderator guides the group through a discussion that probes attitudes about a client's proposed products or services. The discussion is unstructured (or loosely structured), and the moderator encourages the free flow of ideas. Although the moderator is seldom given specific questions to ask, he/she is often given a list of objectives or an anticipated outline.
Client representatives observe the discussion from behind a one-way mirror. Participants cannot see out, but the researchers and their clients can see in. Usually, a video camera records the meeting so that it can be seen by others who were not able to travel to the focus group site. Researchers are examining more than the spoken words. They also try to interpret facial expressions, body language, and group dynamics. Transcripts are also created from the video tape.
Respondents often feel a group pressure to conform and this can contaminate the results. Others hold that group dynamics are useful in developing new streams of thought and covering an issue thoroughly.
Types of focus groups
Variants of focus groups include:
- Two-way focus group - one focus group watches another focus group and discusses the observed interactions and conclusions
- Dual moderator focus group - one moderator ensures the session progresses smoothly, while another ensures that all the topics are covered
- Dueling moderator focus group - two moderators deliberately take opposite sides on the issue under discussion
- Respondent moderator focus group - one or more of the respondents are asked to act as the moderator temporarily
- Client participant focus groups - one or more client representatives participate in the discussion, either covertly or overtly
- Mini focus groups - groups are comprised of 4 or 5 members rather than 8 to 12
- Teleconference focus groups - telephone network is used
- Online focus groups - computers and internet network is used
Traditional focus groups can provide accurate information, and are less expensive than other forms of traditional marketing research. There can be significant costs however : if a product is to be marketed on a nationwide basis, it would be critical to gather respondents from various locales throughout the country since attitudes about a new product may vary due to geographical considerations. This would require a considerable expenditure in travel and lodging expenses. Additionally, the site of a traditional focus group may or may not be in a locale convenient to a specific client, so client representatives may have to incur travel and lodging expenses as well.
The use of focus groups has steadily evolved over time and is becoming increasingly more widespread.
Online Focus Groups
With the advent of large scale computer networks, such as the Internet, it is now possible to link respondents electronically. Respondents share images, data, and their responses on their computer screens. This avoids a significant amount of travel expenses. It allows respondents from all over the country to gather, electronically, while avoiding countless logistical headaches. Online groups are usually limited to 6 or 8 participants. The biggest problem with online focus groups is ensuring that the respondents are representative of the broader population (including computer non-users).
While such a system does eliminate some of the logistical headaches and travel expenses associated with conducting focus groups, it still requires one or more representatives from a client to be physically located with the moderator conducting the focus group. Only in this way can questions be added in real time to further probe a particular response. Thus, even the online system incurs some travel expenses since a client representative will need to travel to a research site or vice versa.
Accordingly, there is a need for a system and method of conducting focus groups using remotely located participants, including one or more moderators, one or more clients and one or more respondents, who are all physically remote from each other. In order to do this, such a system must allow for the implementation of at least two separate chat discussions to be conducted simultaneously between the three classes of focus group participants to provide an electronic analog to a one-way mirror segregating clients from respondents. In addition, such a system must allow and prohibit participation on the different chat discussions based on the class of the participant.
- Morgan, D. (1988). Focus groups as Qualitative Research. London:Sage Publications.
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