FGDs: strengths and limitations

01 Nov 2007 • by Natalie Aster

Implementation of FGDs is an iterative process; each focus group discussion builds on the previous one, with a slightly elaborated or better-focused set of themes for discussion. Provided the groups have been well chosen, in terms of composition and number, FGDs can be a powerful research tool which provides valuable spontaneous information in a short period of time and at relatively low cost.

FGD should not be used for quantitative purposes, such as the testing of hypotheses or the generalization of findings for larger areas, which would require more elaborate surveys.

In traditional focus groups, a screened (qualified) group of respondents gathers in the same room. They are screened to ensure that they are part of the relevant target market and that the group is a representative subgroup of this market segment. There are usually 6 to 10 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 loosely structured, and the moderator encourages the free flow of ideas. The moderator is typically given a list of objectives or an anticipated outline. He/she will generally have only a few specific questions prepared prior to the focus group. These questions will serve to initiate open-ended discussions.

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 site. Transcripts can be created from the video tape. If the participants speak a different language than the clients, a simultaneous interpreter may be used.

Researchers examine more than the spoken words. They also try to interpret facial expressions, body language, and group dynamics. Moderators may use straight questioning or various projective techniques, including fixed or free association, story-telling and role-playing. Focus groups are often used to garner reaction to specific stimuli such as concepts, prototypes and advertising.

It is often suggested that respondents feel group pressure to conform and this can contaminate the results. Others hold that by using trained and experienced moderators who appropriately manage the discussion, this potential problem can be mitigated. Further, despite the potential for groupthink, marketers and sociologists find that group dynamics are useful in developing new streams of thought and covering an issue thoroughly.

However, FGDs can profitably complement other qualitative techniques. Depending on the topic, it may be risky to use FGDs as a single tool. In group discussions, people tend to centre their opinions on the most common ones. In reality, opinions and behaviour may be more diverse. Therefore it is advisable to combine FGDs with at least some key informant and in-depth interviews.

FGDs may assist in execution of the following operations:

  • to evaluate the attitude of consumers towards products, trademarks, manufacturers;
  • to determine buyer’s reaction to advertising and PR-action;
  • to define product’s problem zones;
  • to assess the relation between a product and market needs;
  • to test new commodity (package, design, name, advertising slogan, etc.);
  • to check advertising materials;
  • to analyse company’s image, its strong and week sides;
  • to get acquainted with the language and terminology of prospective consumers;
  • to understand the level of clients’ expertise in a product or service.

However, focus groups are utterly ineffective if:

  • personal opinions vary to such extent that the collection of exact and useful information is difficult or impossible (it may relate to music, fashion);
  • thorough understanding of social and psychological aspects is required (for example, attitude towards certain jobs, maternity issues);
  • focus group is represented by people that could not be gathered at the same place in the same time.