Customer reviews are pretty much indispensable for businesses looking to grow these days, no matter whether they are online or brick-and-mortar. But are surveys or focus groups the best way to obtain crucial customer feedback?
To choose between these types of research methods, it’s useful to understand the answers to a few questions: What is a survey? What is a focus group, and how do you run it? What are the respective advantages and disadvantages of focus groups and surveys? When should you use each?
Here are a few answers and definitions of both focus groups and surveys to help you land on the most appropriate research method for your project, whether you’re working on user research, developing a new product or service, or trying to measure customer satisfaction.
A focus group is a small gathering of people in an interactive setting, generally a room or an online video conference, where they discuss a specific subject under the guidance of a trained moderator. It takes place in a neutral location–as opposed to a company’s own offices, for example–so customers can feel comfortable saying what they really think about the products or services discussed.
This is a great way to hear firsthand feedback from actual users and potential customers. Those who know how to run a focus group will build enough flexibility into the process to be able to make changes on the fly, or dive deeper into a particular topic that may come up during the conversation.
A survey is a questionnaire that’s sent or presented to a large number of people, whose responses represent the attitudes and views of an even larger group . (learn more about sample size and another key concept, margin of error.)
Surveys tend to be classified as quantitative research, which provides conclusive answers in the form of structured data: Statistics, trends, and so on. But surveys are great in that they can also include qualitative questions.
For example, after asking a quantitative question like…
How likely are you to purchase any of our products again?
…you might follow up with a qualitative one like:
Which one of our products did you find the most appropriate to your needs and why?
This question–including a text box for the respondent to write their answer–would allow you to get deeper feedback into an actual customer’s attitude toward your products, in addition to the general measurement of how likely that person is to purchase them again. When you know how to conduct a survey, you can get both the hard data and the why’s and how’s behind your respondents’ actions.
Surveys let you ask questions and measure just about anything. They can be as short as one question and as long as several hundred. (Be mindful of survey fatigue, though.)
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.
There’s one aspect, however, in which surveys need to stay constant: Once you start running a questionnaire, you shouldn’t make too many changes– because your questions need to be consistent in order to collect accurate data over many instances of survey-taking.
Now that you understand the definition of focus group and the definition of survey, you can see what the differences are between them and what pros and cons each research methodology has in relation to your specific needs.
The first suggestion is that you write down the questions you’re trying to answer.
As a 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 since they can both be used for similar goals, such as A/B testing or product development research. In conjunction, the focus group can provide the inspiration while the survey may offer factual validation.
Now let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of both focus groups and surveys, so that you can feel sure you’re making a fully informed choice.
Focus Groups – Pros
Surveys – Pros
Focus Groups – Cons
Surveys – Cons
Now you have an idea of which research method will suit your goals better. Fortunately there are some similarities in the work involved when the time comes to prepare for implementing them.
More and more companies these days are conducting what is known as user research, which involves a deep look into how customers use products and services in real life–regardless of the plans and expectations of the company launching those products or services.
Focus groups and surveys can help marketers, product managers and designers practice this method, which is part of the growing discipline of user-centered design.
Usability.gov recommends using online surveys for all stages of a design project:
However, it suggests relying on focus groups for the first three stages only.
Virgin America is one company that used online surveys to find out how its customers felt about its services. The airline relied on SurveyMonkey questionnaires to revamp its in-flight menu with more fresh food and more potato chips (surprised?), among other improvements to its customer service.
Understanding your users’ views and expectations also includes other aspects of market research, like customer satisfaction or ‘voice of the customer’ research. If you’re interested in looking at this topic in depth, make sure you read our ultimate guide on how to conduct market research surveys.
You know well that nothing is black and white in the world of market research and consumer feedback. So the question of whether to use a focus group or a survey, in many cases, is better understood as a choice of how to use them and when each of them can serve your purposes.
Fortunately, now you have all the information you need to make an informed decision about how to get effective customer reviews and feedback on your products and services. Choosing the right research method can make all the difference.