Asking the right focus group questions is a pivotal part of conducting a certain type of successful market research, but in order to do this effectively, it’s first vital to fully understand ‘What is a focus group?’.
What Is a Focus Group and Why Is It Invaluable in Market Research?
A focus group is a qualitative research methodology that brings together a small group of carefully chosen individuals under the guidance of a moderator to discuss a topic in detail and collect in-depth opinion. Even in our digital age, focus groups are particularly valuable for marketers as a way to gain deeper insight into consumer interests, attitudes, motivations, and perceptions, and to learn more about how and why customers behave the way they do. As a result, focus groups are used by both small businesses and major brands like Disney, Twitter, and Starbucks to improve their products and increase market share.
5 Examples of When to Use Focus Groups in Marketing
When you’re looking to launch a new product When you need to assess opinions about a current service or website feature When it’s necessary to fine-tune the focus of an advertising campaign When it’s critical to better understand a particular audience segment or user persona When you want to test a prototype
Survey research can provide the raw data to validate or invalidate assumptions, but focus group research enables a greater depth of inquiry that produces far more nuanced insights into consumer behavior. Focus groups yield the kind of rich, layered feedback you’d be hard-pressed to obtain through quantitative research methods, and they’re also ideal if you want to observe how opinions are formed and expressed in a collective context.
As Janet Salmons, principal consultant for Vision2Lead and author of the book Doing Qualitative Research Online, says, “Focus groups are beneficial when you are interested in how participants respond not only to the product or service in question, but also to each other and the mood of the group as a whole.
Naturally, though, eliciting quality responses from group members is contingent on asking quality questions. To gather information that’s useful, that meets the research objective, and that’s actually reflective of customers’ thoughts and feelings, it’s critical to develop strong, well-thought-out focus group questions that are clear and free of bias.
Doing so is, unfortunately, a little easier said than done, which is why we’ve included a number of examples and a few tips on this topic for marketing professionals below.
Pros and Cons of Focus Groups
|Yield rich, real-time feedback||Can be costly and time-consuming to arrange and conduct|
|Provide the opportunity to explore topics in-depth and request elaboration and clarification||Participants may not feel comfortable enough to share opinions as not anonymous|
|Provide insight into the motivations behind actions and decisions||Moderators can unintentionally introduce bias|
|A rare chance to get inside consumers’ minds and view how they respond to one another||Quality of data can easily be undermined by poorly worded, leading, or ambiguous questions|
|Structure often uncovers new, unexpected insights||Loud, opinionated participants can skew the results|
4 Key Types of Focus Group Questions: 25+ Examples & Samples
In a typical market research discussion, various different types of focus group questions should be asked of participants. These fall into four categories, each of which is detailed below.
1. Introductory/Engagement Questions
Asked right at the beginning of a focus group session, introductory questions should, in Salmons’ words, “establish a safe space within the group”. She recommends starting with “something that elicits stories about a common experience,” stimulating the participants to engage one another and quickly foster a sense of community Engagement questions are also commonly used to get participants talking about the research topic – such queries should be general and easy to answer.
Examples Note: X could be a product or brand name, a service, an action, or a subject area.
- Thanks for attending this focus group about X. I personally took the train today with an entire middle-school marching band in purple striped uniforms. How did you get here, and what was one funny or unusual thing you saw along the way?
- Thank you for participating in this focus group. I am sure this is a busy time for everyone. I know I am looking forward to a hike this Saturday! What will you do to unwind over the weekend?
- Today we’ll be chatting about X. When did you last purchase a product from this range?
- What’s your favorite brand of X?
- How often do you do X?
2. Exploration Questions
As the name suggests, this type of focus group question is used to dive deep into the research topic and elicit detailed responses from participants that offer insight into their needs, wants, and concerns. These questions should be structured to draw out as much information from members as possible.
- What thoughts, feelings, and associations come to mind first when you think about X?
- If you could change one thing about X, what would it be?
- Can you give an example of when and how you last used X?
- Do you prefer X or Y – and why?
- What three things impact whether you do X?
3. Follow-up Questions
These focus group questions are employed after a primary exploratory question has been answered in order to dig deeper, collect more information about an interesting assertion, clarify anything that’s unclear, or invite other participants to comment on a point that’s been made.
Examples - What do you mean when you say “X”? - Can you give us a few examples? - What did you do when that happened? - What do you think it is about X that makes you feel that way? - Can you say anything else about that? - Can you build on the point [Name] just made? - Who’s had a similar experience to [Name]? Who’s had a different experience from [Name]?
4. Exit Questions
Used to wrap up a focus group discussion, exit questions play an important role in ensuring that nothing has been left unsaid and that all aspects of the topic have been covered in full.
- Are there any other points you’d like to make about this subject?
- Would you like to say anything else about X?
- Is there anything we didn’t touch on that you feel is important?
- Do you think there are related topics we should have covered, but didn’t?
17 Examples of Effective Market Research Focus Group Questions
- How do you feel about the course?
- If you could change one thing about the packaging of our products, what would it be?
- What do you think about the process of booking a table at a restaurant?
- In your opinion, what are three problems – if you believe any exist – with our service?
- What three factors do you consider when purchasing a new appliance?
- Tell me about your best experience with an e-commerce store?
- Tell me about one time when you called the customer service number about a delivery problem?
- What’s the first word that comes to mind when you look at this logo design?
- If you were to tell a friend about our service, what would you say?
- Where do you usually shop for household cleaning products?
- What are two things that would prevent you from downloading an app?
- Which of these steps do you take when you are purchasing electronics online: 1) read professional tests and ratings reviews, 2) read users’ comments, or 3) look at the device at a retail store?
- When you use our all-surface chalk paint, what do you usually use it for?
- What’s the one thing our product doesn’t do that you wish it did?
- Can you complete the following sentence: When I cook dinner at night, I usually start by_____
- Can you tell me about the last radio commercial that really stuck in your mind?
- Is there anything else you would like to add about why you do or don’t use mouthwash?
Examples of Ineffective Focus Group Questions
ABC is the best rated shampoo. What shampoo do you buy? Why it’s a poor question: It’s loaded, reflects the moderator’s biases, and could potentially sway the participant’s response.
Do you like the fragrance of our skincare range? Why it’s a poor question: Participants can answer “yes” or “no” without any further elaboration, so it reveals very little about the topic. A better version: What do you like and what do you dislike about the fragrance of our skincare range?
Why would you think that? Why it’s a poor question: Even if well-meant, it implies that the researcher disagrees with or disapproves of the response. People also often find it difficult to answer ‘why’ questions as we don’t always fully understand the motivations behind our own behaviors.
Am I right that this packaging design looks a little less professional than the other? Why it’s a poor question: It’s also a leading question and pushes the respondent towards a particular answer.
Can you tell us about your experience with our online support system? How did you feel afterwards? Why it’s a poor question: Double questions and questions with multiple components just confuse participants and result in weaker responses or no response at all.
What are your thoughts on our public education system? Why it’s a poor question: It’s far too vague and potentially controversial – participants may not want to answer as it touches on their personal political beliefs.
Tips for Writing Great Focus Group Questions
With all those examples in mind, how will you repurpose them for your own focus group? Keep the following advice in mind to ensure that you develop questions that yield qualitative data that’s of maximum value to you.
1. Start with the end goal and work backwards
What are you ultimately hoping to discover by conducting a focus group? Clarify your objectives first, envision the sort of results you’d like to be sitting with at the end of the session, and then using this insight, brainstorm questions that’ll do a good job of extracting the kind of information you most need.
2. Cover all the different types of focus group questions
During the initial brainstorm, make sure you develop questions that fall into each of the categories described above. Don’t focus so heavily on generating exploration questions that you neglect to prepare introductory and exit queries or fail to consider the precise wording of potential follow-up questions. By including alternatives that cover all the types, you help to ensure that your focus group flows naturally and follows the correct arc.
3.Keep wording conversational and use the language of the participants
If the discussion feels contrived, participants are less likely to share their thoughts openly. Try to create the feel of an informal conversation by using colloquial language that’s familiar to group members. If questions are too technical or intellectual, participants won’t relax into the exchange.
4. Make questions short, straightforward, and unambiguous
It must be immediately clear what you’re asking. Don’t confuse group members with lengthy questions that have multiple parts or that could be interpreted in various ways. Keep the phrasing simple, and you’ll save time and elicit higher quality feedback.
5. Use open-ended constructions primarily
While you can and should vary the use of closed (dichotomous) questions, restricted questions (those that limit potential answers to a few options), and open-ended questions (those that make room for complex answers), remember to put the emphasis on the latter so that you can get into the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of consumer behavior and keep the conversation flowing.
6. Prioritize questions that define the scope of the potential answers
The above said, Salmons argues that because you ideally want plenty of interaction between participants, it’s not advisable to ask focus group questions that encourage individuals to launch into extremely lengthy answers. Instead, set clear boundaries by, for instance, asking members to tell you about “one incident” or to give you “two examples”.
7. Avoid constructions that could lead participants to a particular answer
Leading questions, like “Did that make you feel like X”, create the impression that a certain response is more desirable than others. Be careful of introducing bias into the group by phrasing queries in suggestive ways. Instead, use wording that leaves the floor entirely open for participants.
8. Make sure questions don’t alienate or shame participants
If group members feel humiliated or misunderstood, they’ll withdraw and contribute little to the discussion. Watch out for focus group questions that might imply prejudice, that are intimidating or accusatory, or that are embarrassing to answer.
9. Unless central to the research objective, avoid questions about sensitive or contentious matters
Salmons suggests that moderators stay away from the subjects of politics and religion and avoid questions about health, weight, relationship status, alcohol, or drug use. If you do have to touch on sensitive topics, word questions carefully so that group members feel like they can share as much or as little as they’re comfortable with, and without judgment. Salmons also recommends that if you need to ask about religious or political beliefs, you do so in a closed manner (for instance, you could ask members to provide a rating on a scale from 1 to 10).
10. Include stimulating queries that call for creativity and analytical thinking
To get the most out of a focus group, you’ll want to engage participants and get them excited about contributing. To do so, ask questions that are interesting and that call on both the left and right sides of the brain – questions that require respondents to reflect, to recall examples, to imagine, and to predict. That way, participants will be more motivated to answer carefully and will remain focused throughout the session.
11. Brainstorm question formats that tap into different ways of thinking
Group members might find it difficult to find the words to express their thoughts in response to standard “why” or “how” questions. Help them to access their feelings and perceptions by using non-standard question formats. For instance, you could ask them to complete a sentence or sort descriptive words into piles. You could also create a vignette that participants can discuss, like this example supplied by Salmons:
A customer who uses a desktop at work was looking for a new laptop to use at home. How could the sales representative help her choose the best laptop for her needs? What training does the sales representative need in order to help non-techies buy computers?
12. Test questions by running a pilot
Certain questions might look great on paper but completely fail to deliver in practice. You don’t want to discover that this is the case in the live focus group setting, so assemble a few individuals beforehand and trial the queries with them. If any of the inclusions in your script are confusing, ambiguous or redundant, you should find this out in the pilot run.
13. Make every question count
You have limited time with participants, so you want to limit your list of focus group questions to those that will bring the most value (between 8 and 12 in total). Go through your script and delete any question that doesn’t entirely deserve to be there, that’s not likely to generate new information or that can be answered through other means.
How to Conduct a Successful Focus Group
1. Establish clear objectives
Obtaining useful results relies on having clear goals at the outset. Seek input from everyone involved to make sure you have a thorough understanding of the aim(s) of the research. Your research goals will help inform how much money and time you can realistically spend on focus group researcher. For example, a small business owner looking to validate a new marketing plan may opt to organize and run the focus group themselves. On the other hand, if you’re launching a new product for a major brand, it might be worth the extra money to hire a firm to manage the process for you. (A professionally managed focus group research can cost around $6,000 or more, depending on project requirements.)
2. Choose an unbiased moderator with some knowledge on the subject
Select a facilitator who’s familiar enough with the research topic to guide the session, but who will also approach the group discussion from a neutral position. A people person who knows how to handle both extroverts and introverts is ideal.
3. Select and recruit group members who represent your target audience
For the outcomes of a focus group to be useful, it’s critical that participants are representative of the market your business is targeting. To ensure this is the case, establish clear criteria for inclusion and screen all potential members against these requirements.
4. Incentivize participation
As you’re asking for a fair chunk of participants’ time, it is standard practice to offer them some form of compensation, often in the form of a participation fee which can range from $100 to $300+ per participant for a standard 90-minute session. A meal and refreshments should also be provided. This all helps to improve attendance and motivation.
5. Prepare a clear focus group script
As mentioned earlier, for focus group success, effective questions must be developed beforehand. These should be included in a detailed guide given to the moderator.
6. Order questions strategically
Usually, it’s best to start general and ask progressively more specific questions as the session goes on. Positive questions should also be asked before negative ones.
7. Choose a quiet neutral location
Select a setting for the focus group that lends itself to productive conversation. It should be quiet, comfortable, and convenient. Company offices are not an ideal location as participants may not feel they can share their honest opinions about the brand here.
8. Carefully control the flow of the conversation and encourage everyone to contribute
A good moderator will make sure that the group discussion stays on topic, that all focus group questions are covered, and that vocal group members don’t monopolize the conversation. If the latter happens, it can tarnish the data, so encourage timid participants to talk by explicitly asking for their opinions and requesting clarification and elaboration when necessary.
9. Build flexibility into the process
While it’s best to follow a discussion guide, if valuable new topics and ideas arise, facilitators should be able to adapt the script somewhat to allow for exploration of these unanticipated areas.
10. Allow time for open discussion at the end
Once the exit questions have been asked, don’t rush to wrap up the discussion. You never know what might be revealed if you give participants time to chat openly at the end.
11. Record the session
Although notes should be taken throughout the group discussion, it’s also important to record the dialogue so that you can be confident nothing’s been missed. This way, you can also return to the recording and listen multiple times.
12. Consider conducting more than one focus group
It’s often necessary to arrange more than one focus group discussion to ensure that the information gathered is, in fact, representative of the opinions and perceptions of a broader population. As you can see in the graph below, it’s safest to conduct between three and six sessions if you want to be confident you’ve identified the vast majority of relevant themes.
Taken from Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mckenna, K. (2016). How Many Focus Groups Are Enough? Building an Evidence Base for Nonprobability Sample Sizes. Field Methods, 29(1).
If you follow the tips above and focus much of your energy on developing strong questions, you should find that your focus group discussion runs smoothly and yields positive results. While focus groups can be an invaluable form of qualitative research, their success is entirely contingent on how well you run them and how effective the questions are at uncovering the insights you’re hoping to find.