When to use focus groups in your market research

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.

What is a focus group?

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?

  • Extremely likely
  • Very likely
  • Somewhat likely
  • Not so likely
  • Not at all likely

…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.

When to use a focus group

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.

  • Are you going to be satisfied with the answers from a one-way questionnaire, or do you think you may need to go into a deeper conversation with follow-up questions and longer explanations?
  • Are you looking for directional information (what unsolved needs your customers may have, for example) or statistical proof (how many of your existing customers bought your new product)?
  • Will you feel comfortable making decisions based on a handful of opinions, or do you need customer feedback from a larger sample size before moving forward?

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.

You can even prepare for a focus group by conducting a survey to understand your core demographic, like this San Francisco market research firm did using SurveyMonkey Audience.

The pros and cons of focus groups and surveys

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

  • Hear feedback in your customers’ own words and voices, the most personal kind of customer review you can get.
  • Uncover ideas and issues that your team may not have considered but are important to your customer.
  • Enjoy the flexibility of diving deeper into issues that come up during the discussion.

Surveys – Pros

  • Get feedback quickly. Depending on the number of respondents, the results can be available in 24-48 hours.
  • Research may be designed once and used many times over a longer period. This also allows for benchmarking survey results and detecting trends over months and years.
  • Feedback may be more candid since it’s provided in a more private, often anonymous, setting.
  • Various types of customers can respond at the same time and their responses can be divided based on numerous variables.

Focus Groups – Cons

  • Expenses include recruitment and compensation of participants, facility rental, moderator and/or agency fees, and sometimes travel to multiple locations to get perspectives from different demographics.
  • There’s a risk of receiving skewed results when outspoken participants dominate the discussion.
  • Recruiting qualified participants may be hard due to the time commitment involved.
  • You need to invest significant time and effort to organize and conduct a focus group.

Surveys – Cons

  • Recruiting the right 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 give you feedback on issues not included in the survey.

5 tips on how to conduct focus groups and surveys

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.

  1. Goals, goals, goals. All successful research projects start with clear objectives. Make sure that the team knows what the main research questions are, and what decisions you hope to inform with the project’s results. Get input from the key stakeholders in your organization and outside partners to ensure that you get it right the first time. Do-overs are expensive in time and money.
  2. Recruit participants. Whose opinion do you need to hear in this research project? Just as important, who do you want to exclude? Think about this question in terms of demographics, to make sure that your respondents represent the right target audience, and in terms of whether they are current or potential customers.
  3. Develop the content. If you’ve decided to go with a focus group, you need to work on a discussion guide: A script for the moderator to use in the groups. What questions should they ask and what do they need to know about your product or service to answer any questions from participants? If you’ve chosen a survey, this step entails writing the questionnaire. SurveyMonkey’s experts can help: Here are their tips for writing good survey questions.
  4. Consider participant preparation. Do you want the participants to do any activity or homework before they arrive to the focus group or respond the survey? Let them know and get that content ready.
  5. Do you need a budget? In the case of surveys, you need to weigh the pros and cons of offering rewards to your respondents. You can read this in-depth article on the pros and cons of the practice known as incentivizing. Compensation is customary in the case of focus groups, since you’re asking for a bigger time and energy commitment from your participants.

How to use focus groups and surveys for effective user research

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:

  • getting to know the user
  • creating the content
  • designing the product
  • testing prototypes to refine the final version

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.

Ready to start your consumer research?

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.