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12 Pros and Cons of Focus Groups

Focus groups are a way to discover demographic-relevant information through an interactive group sessions that is run by a facilitator. Instead of a traditional survey which offers specific question and answer options, the focus group allows participants to speak freely about the ideas presented and offer their opinions in a way that supports what the survey is attempting to discover.

Initially created by Ernest Dichter and Robert Merton, this survey method has certain advantages and disadvantages that should be considered. Here is a look at some of the specific key points to consider.

What Are the Pros of Focus Groups?

The primary benefit of using a focus group is that it levels the “playing field” of a demographic. Socioeconomic differences, educational levels, and other distinguishing characteristics that could potentially skew the data are removed because everyone becomes an equal contributor to the group.

1. A group answer can be developed.
An interesting aspect of the focus group is how answers tend to build on top of each other. The processing that happens is unique because people are able to consider different answers and opinions other than their own to have their personal views begin to evolve. This gives survey takers more complete information and allows participants to have their own person views begin to evolve. Both sides receive value.

2. It provides an increased reach.
Focus groups can attract people today from all over the world. They can even be conducted online under certain circumstances. This means it becomes possible to screen more people so that the critical factors being researched can be examined without the same levels of restriction.

3. They are both convenient and fun.
The problem with survey taking in general is that they all tend to be disruptive. If you’re out shopping at the mall with your family, do you really want someone asking you questions for 5-10 minutes? Of course not. Although there can be travel requirements for a focus group, the chance to be with peers and discuss important topics is fun for participants and a convenient way to gather information.

4. They provide a certain level of anonymity.
Online focus groups tend to provide more anonymous information than in-person groups, but all focus groups allow for a certain level of privacy. Most people don’t know each other in a group, which allows people to provide honest answers and open responses. This is critically important when attempting to research information about cultural, personal, or even socioeconomic issues. If people feel like they will be judged by those that they know, they tend to alter what gets said, even at the expense of their personal opinions.

5. Focus groups can be very cost effective.
There will always be the costs of meeting rooms, A/V equipment, transcription services, food and beverages, and potentially hotel accommodations. Even online focus groups have certain cost requirements. Yet in the gathering of critical data from a fairly large sample of people, there aren’t many other methods that are as affordable as the focus group. People who participate in them appreciate travel expenses and other needs being met, making the event seem like a vacation.

6. Questioning can be altered to fit the needs of a conversation.
Instead of focusing on a scripted response, focus groups are able to ad-lib questions within the moment to create more detailed information. This may require a skilled facilitator to recognize emotional changes in the group, but when it is done correctly, it can literally change how the world perceives certain subjects.

What Are the Cons of Focus Groups?

The primary disadvantage is that a focus group still tends to be a sub-section of a demographic’s views. Even though great care may be taken to create a diverse group that represents several different components of a demographic, the group itself is just a small sample. Sampled information is valuable, but is not always 100% accurate.

1. The results can be altered with strong leadership.
If you put a group of people into a room, a leader tends to emerge. This person helps to facilitate the discussion and makes sure their personal opinions are heard first. Strong, persuasive leadership can alter the opinions of other focus group participants and make it difficult to receive accurate data, even if there is a strong facilitator in the room.

2. There may be a lack of direct participation by some.
The level of involvement that some participants may have could be minimal. Sometimes people don’t interact in a focus group at all. It’s important to recognize who may have an introverted personality in a focus group because introverts tend to absorb all the information around them and offer brief moments of insight. Those brief moments can be worth more than 30 minutes of others talking.

3. Group dynamics sometimes create a personal bias.
Every person has a certain bias on every subject because of their upbringing, their current environment, and other personalized experiences. This personal bias can come out when certain group dynamics are present, seemingly justifying the bias. When included with the final outcome, sometimes the researchers conducting the focus group have more influence on the final outcome than the participants.

4. Responses that are non-verbal may be misinterpreted.
Someone who hasn’t been talking for awhile suddenly crosses their arms in front of their chest. To many, this seems like a defensive pose that indicates they disagree with what is being discussed. It could also mean that they’re just bored with the conversation and interactions happening because they seem pointless or surface-level. Non-verbal cues can provide an extra depth of insight, but they can also create misinterpreted data that alters the final results.

5. There are always security concerns.
Many focus groups try to eliminate distractions that may occur. Although this is a concern, a greater issue is security. When people disagree with each other on a passionate issue, things can go from shouting to violence in a very short amount of time. Screening in respondents who are not likely to have such a response provoked out of them is important, but not a guarantee that something won’t happen.

6. Moderators can inadvertently influence the data.
Facilitators do more than just ask questions. They provide the group with a certain level of energy. They encourage engagement. They keep the conversation on track. Moderators can also influence the data when questions posed aren’t neutral in nature.

The pros and cons of focus groups show that there can be a lot of valuable information gathered from this type of survey method. The difference between quality data and data with bias depends on how people are screened and the data is treated. As long as the disadvantages are equally weighed with the advantages that focus groups provide, the data value is unquestionable.

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