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Running a survey vs a focus group: What’s the best way to collect customer reviews?

Pros and cons to consider before you begin your customer research

Whether you run a brick and mortar business or create mobile apps, one of the most valuable tools at your disposal is customer feedback.

Why? Customer feedback helps you understand what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and gives you the information you need to make the right changes and improvements.

But there are different ways to collect customer feedback. More specifically, you’ll need to decide between a focus group vs survey.

  • Surveys let you collect feedback from several customers in a cost effective way. But because you want to limit the number of survey questions you include, there’s a limited amount of information you can get back from each customer.
  • Focus groups help you collect more in-depth customer feedback, but they can be more costly and time consuming to run than surveys.

To help you decide between using a focus group vs survey, let’s review each of them in more detail and discuss their respective pros and cons.

What is a focus group?

By definition a focus group is designed to provide exploratory rather than conclusive research data so you can understand not only what your customers think, but also how and why they think the way they do.

Focus groups are typically interactive group settings, held in a neutral place where your customers can feel comfortable telling you what they really think and are facilitated by a trained moderator. They’re a great way to hear firsthand feedback from your customers and they also have enough flexibility that you can make changes on the fly or deep dive into interesting things that come up over the course of the conversation.

What is a survey?

Surveys tend to be classified as quantitative research and the results can be conclusive, unlike a focus group. They also let you ask questions and measure just about anything–and can be as short as a single question to as long as several hundred questions.

Answer formats can include multiple choice, rating scales and open-ended questions. In terms of both budget and timing, surveys offer a lot of flexibility as well. At the same time, surveys can be viewed as inflexible, because once you start running a survey, you shouldn’t make too many changes–because your questions need to be consistent in order to collect accurate data.

Focus groups vs surveys—which to use when?

Trying to decide whether you want to run a focus group or a survey? It helps to write down the questions you are trying to answer. Can they be answered through one-way questions or do they lend themselves to a conversation? Do you need directional information or statistical proof? Will you be comfortable making decisions from a handful of opinions, or do you need to get feedback from a larger sample size before moving forward?

(Psst. Use this sample size calculator—it’s an easy way to calculate your sample size.)

The pros and cons of focus groups and surveys

Here’s a handy list to help you decide whether you should be running a focus group or a survey to collect customer feedback.

Focus groups

Pros

  • Hear customer feedback in your customers' own words and voices.
  • Uncover ideas and issues that your internal team may not have considered—but are important to your customer.
  • Have the flexibility to dive deeper into issues that come up during the discussion.

Cons

  • Incur expenses including but not limited to recruiting, facility, rental, moderator and/or agency fees, compensation for participation, travel to multiple locations to view groups.
  • Receive skewed results due to outspoken participants who dominate group discussion.
  • Have difficulty recruiting qualified participants due to time commitment involved.
  • Invest significant time and effort planning, organizing, recruiting, and (potentially) traveling.

Surveys

Pros

  • Get feedback quickly. Depending on number of respondents, receive results within 24-48 hours.
  • Provide a way to design research once and then send and resend same survey over time. (Easy to benchmark survey results.)
  • Receive more candid answers since feedback provided in a more private, anonymous setting.
  • Reach more than one type of customer simultaneously and then cut the data based on any variable.

Cons

  • Recruiting participants may be difficult if you do not have contact information for your customers.
  • Asking follow-up questions requires conducting additional research.
  • Customers may not have a way to proactively provide feedback on issues not included in the survey.

For both types of research, you’ll need to do similar preparation:

Establish the main things you want to learn, and what decisions you hope to inform with your research. Solicit feedback from key internal stakeholders to make sure you get it right the first time

2. Recruit participants

Who do you want to participate? Equally important, who do you want to make sure to exclude? Think about their demographics (including but not limited to): age, gender, household income, profession, where they live. Do you have their contact information or do you need a company to put you in touch with your target audience? Do you want respondents or participants to be familiar with your product or product category? If you need help finding the right people to take your survey, SurveyMonkey Audience can get in touch with just about anybody, according to your specifications.

3. Develop a discussion guide (for focus groups)

The discussion guide is similar to a script for the moderator to use in the groups. What questions do you want the moderator to ask? What does s/he need to know about your project to answer participants’ questions?

5. Consider participant preparation

Is there any activity or homework that participants need to do before the research begins?

6. Set aside budget for compensation

Weigh the pros and cons of incentivizing customer participation. How much, if anything, are you able to compensate participants for their time?

As a general rule of thumb, if you want to have a conversation with your customers that will help provide direction, pursue a focus group. If, however, you have well-defined questions and need to reach a large group or multiple groups of customers, a survey may better suit your needs. The combination of the two methodologies can also provide tremendous insight. Essentially, the focus group can provide the inspiration–and then the survey gives you validation!

See how SurveyMonkey can power your curiosity