Focus group

A focus group is a small, but demographically diverse group of people and whose reactions are studied especially in market research or political analysis in guided or open discussions about a new product or something else to determine the reactions that can be expected from a larger population. It is a form of qualitative research consisting of interviews in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. During this process, the researcher either takes notes or records the vital points he or she is getting from the group. Researchers should select members of the focus group carefully for effective and authoritative responses.

Focus groups have a long history and were used during the Second World War (1939-1945) to examine the effectiveness of propaganda. Associate director sociologist Robert K. Merton set up focus groups at the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the USA prior to 1976. Psychologist and marketing expert Ernest Dichter coined the term "focus group" itself before his death in 1991.

In the world of marketing, focus groups are seen as an important tool for acquiring feedback regarding new products, as well as various other topics. In marketing, focus groups are usually used in the early stages of product or concept development, when organizations are trying to create an overall direction for marketing initiative. 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 valuable information about the potential market acceptance of the product.

A focus group is an interview, conducted by a trained moderator among a small group of respondents. The interview is conducted in an informal and natural way where respondents are free to give views from any aspect. Focus groups are similar to, but should not be confused with in-depth interviews. The moderator uses a discussion guide that has been prepared in advance of the focus group to guide the discussion. Generally the discussion goes from overall impressions of a brand or product category and becomes more specific as the discussion progresses.

A fundamental difficulty with focus groups (and other forms of qualitative research) is the issue of observer dependency: the results obtained are influenced by the researcher or his or her own reading of the group's discussion, raising questions of validity (see experimenter's bias). Focus groups are "One shot case studies" especially if they are measuring a property-disposition relationship within the social sciences, unless they are repeated. Focus groups can create severe issues of external validity, especially the reactive effects of the testing arrangement. Other common (and related) criticism involve groupthink and social desirability bias.

Douglas Rushkoff argues that focus groups are often useless, and frequently cause more trouble than they are intended to solve, with focus groups often aiming to please rather than offering their own opinions or evaluations, and with data often cherry picked to support a foregone conclusion. Rushkoff cites the disastrous introduction of New Coke in the 1980s as a vivid example of focus group design, implementation and analysis gone bad.

The analysis of focus group data presents both challenges and opportunities when compared to other types of qualitative data. Some authors have suggested that data should be analysed in the same manner as interview data, while others have suggested that the unique features of focus group data particularly the opportunity that it provides to observe interactions between group members - means that distinctive forms of analysis should be used. Data analysis can take place at the level of the individual or the group.

At the collective level, focus group data can sometimes reveal shared understandings or common views. However, there is a danger that a consensus can be assumed when not every person has spoken: the researcher will need to consider carefully whether the people who have not expressed a view can be assumed to agree with the majority, or whether they may simply be unwilling to voice their disagreement.

The United States federal government makes extensive use of focus groups to assess public education materials and messages for their many programs. While many of these are appropriate for the purpose, many others are reluctant compromises which federal officials have had to make as a result of studies independent of whether a focus group is the best or even appropriate methodology.

Swedish artist Mans Wrange has used the concept of the focus group in his work The Good Rumor Project. In this instance the focus group situation is used not only as a means to investigate the opinions of the group members, but also to spread an idea (the rumor) across society with the help of the group members.