What To Expect From A Focus Group

We asked some of our favorite bloggers to provide us a “lost gem” – a great article that deserved wider response than it received the first time it was published. We wrap up our series with this piece by Lisa Steckert, which was originally published here on May 3.

Bernett focus group room

A focus group room in Boston (image courtesy of Bernett Research).

If you were to ask me what my favorite past time is I’d have to say people-watching. No surprise, I am market researcher! Observing people and their interactions with one another can be a great source of inspiration and entertainment.

With that in mind, I recently attended my first focus group, excited to study our core consumers. While I may like to observe for fun, I was unsure what to expect. A myriad of questions ran through my mind; who will attend, what will I learn, what should I be observing, what is the flow of conversation, and more!

I was fascinated by the attendants and surprised at how openly opinions were shared amongst the group. I expected people to be reserved, yet experienced the complete opposite. The group was responsive, providing clear feedback on concepts as if talking to their best friend. While I was uncertain how the research would go, by the end of the day I saw the value in this type of methodology. Understanding the “whys” behind something is very powerful.

Behind the Scenes, What You Don’t See

Even with my limited exposure, I knew the first step (like with any research) was to determine the objective: What information is being sought? How will the insights derived from the research be utilized? What do we want to discover? Once our goals were finalized, I learned the next step is to choose a moderator. From here on out, the collaboration begins.

Apparently, logistics take up an inordinate amount of time once the moderator/facilitator is chosen. It is astounding the little details that need to be taken care of. Needless to say, I was glad to find out the research manager was responsible for: choosing the markets where the focus groups will take place, developing a screening questionnaire to identify qualified participants, working with the facility to manage the recruiting process and the backroom logistics, coordinating stimulus, and communicating arrangements to internal clients. While we did have final approval, it was a relief to have a partner on board to pull everything together.


Our focus group was conducted in a traditional setting- a conference room. A one way mirror made it easy to monitor the discussion, and the microphones in the focus group area allowed us to clearly hear the conversations taking place. In addition, video cameras were recording the sessions giving us the opportunity to playback anything we may have missed at a later time.


While the task may appear simple, the role of moderator requires a high level of skill. We were fortunate to have a seasoned individual at the helm, which greatly increased the odds that our results would be actionable. She led the group discussion, ensured our teams objectives were adequately addressed and guaranteed all relevant topics were covered in the time allotted. With the wrong person in the driver’s seat, I would imagine the research insights could be limited and incorrect.

Sample Size – Does It Matter?

Although the qualitative sample size is small, it is important to make sure the core target groups are represented. I know that focus groups are not designed to be statistically representative of the population, but I learned that it is important to keep the composition of each group as cleanly defined as possible..

According to CAPA, a focus group is most effective with 7-12 participants. When in the field, we observed 7 individuals per group (lasting 60 minutes) and went through 4 sessions. After seeing almost 30 people in a day, I felt that was the right amount in order to achieve our objective.

Wizard of Oz behind the curtain

Pay No Attention to the Man behind the Curtain – Well, Mirror!

With logistics taken care of, it was time to go in the back room and observe. While each focus group and environment is unique, I encountered a room packed with an abundance of snack food. My will is strong, temptation is stronger, and I found myself in the company of countless peanut M&Ms. A tailored lunch was later provided, along with an assortment of sides and beverages to last throughout the day. Needless to say, everyone in attendance was fully nourished and/or had a stomach ache.

Multiple groups from within our company attended the research from design, marketing, packaging, and insights teams. I know from previous experience, having the stakeholders attend the research is important. Reading a report provides knowledge, but seeing for yourself how the consumer reacts and engages with your product/concept/service is powerful. It’s like the Chinese Proverb says, “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I may remember. But involve me, and I’ll understand”.

Once the session began, everyone took a seat, opened their laptop and watched the respondents, ready to document their perceptions of the findings. Some people took notes (myself included), others watched intently as if committing the dialogue to memory, and others just listened. The dynamic in our room was interesting. While we all watched the same group, we each experienced it differently.

After each session, we discussed potential “AHA” moments, questions to further probe on, areas of concern or praise, and overall “gist” of what took place and how to digest the information. Most importantly, we talked about what information is actionable and how.


Once the field sessions concluded and analysis finalized, a final report was delivered that highlighted the key findings and implications. Our moderator was able to extract information from the participants that the group found very beneficial. These insights were utilized in our final report and I must say; I was impressed with her. For any qualitative study, the learning’s from our research were to provide directional insights and help guide future initiatives. They are being used in tandem with other research methodologies today.


My first focus group experience was exceptionally valuable and I am excited to add this methodology to my “research arsenal”. In future groups, I plan on becoming more actively involved in the planning process and I am excited to learn how the learnings from the research will be acted upon by company decision-makers. The best part about market research is continuous learning and the never-ending supply of peanut M&Ms.

Lisa Steckert is a client-side market researcher and novice blogger. You can follow her on Twitter@LisaSteckert.


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