Method Matters - Keeping the Focus

The Dawn of Focus Groups (Focused Interviews)

Early iterations appearing first in the 1950s in the U.S., Focused Interviews involved a group of individuals that assembled to discuss a specific topic. Participants were expected to draw from personal experiences, share their beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes through a timed and moderated Focused session. Early examples of these include Robert Merton’s famous WW2 experiments, where participants would attend a radio studio and during the Interview session, subjects were asked to evaluate questions revolving around American war messaging in hopes of better convincing  citizens of its war aims.

The burgeoning field of market research adopted this method shortly after, and along with its new popularity helped birth a new qualitative research discipline. Over time, a contrast developed market research, setting qualitative apart from its numerical design cousin - quantitative research.

Quantitative researchers, sometimes referred to as ‘Quants’ are often characterized as logical and statistically driven practitioners, trained to identify patterns, and draw conclusions from sets of numerical data. ‘Quallies’ on the other hand differ, in that the data they collect is freer flowing and open to interpretation, typically gathered through small groups or even a single interview. The data that Quallies collect from methods like focus groups is analyzed by categorizing information pulling ideas and themes and then turned into insights, although importantly, focus groups cannot tell you the number of people that buy a product, but it can tell you more about the people who do.

Online Tools

Researchers began adapting the text-based chat rooms that were all the buzz in the mid and late 90s, some creative researchers then transformed these webtools into the format of a live group. In time, these technologies became widely used and eventually real-time video too was adapted, getting closer to the effect, feel and results of an in-person group. The common differences of in-person and online focus group methods highlight distinct advantages and drawbacks of each.

In-person focus groups offer the benefit of face-to-face interaction, fostering a deep level of engagement and rapport among participants. This environment can lead to more spontaneous and nuanced discussions, allowing researchers to observe non-verbal cues and reactions firsthand. Additionally, in-person focus groups may attract a more diverse range of participants, particularly those who prefer or have easier access to physical gatherings. Online groups allow for the convenience of attending from home or office, the ability to mix distant locales in a single project and increasingly, a reduction in cost.

Pros and Cons of In Person Focus Groups


In-person Focus Groups:


In-person Focus Groups:

Facilitates deeper engagement and rapport among participants. Requires significant logistical arrangements.
Allows for observation of non-verbal cues and reactions. Geographical limitations may restrict participant pool
Attracts a diverse range of participants. More time-consuming and expensive to conduct

Pros and Cons Online Focus Groups


Online Focus Group:


Online Focus Groups:

Offers greater flexibility and accessibility. Lacks personal connection and spontaneity.
Eliminates the need for travel, accommodating busy schedules. Limited ability to observe non-verbal cues.
Reaches a broader and more geographically diverse audience. Technical issues may disrupt discussions.

The Digital Transformation:

Like most industries, market research had been forced to adapt to the effects of Covid-19, and in-person qualitative research was particularly hit hard. Prior to the lockdown, online or ‘tech-enabled’ insights methods were increasing steadily, but as restrictions forced in-person focus groups to pause - this required the agencies that offer the focus group as a service, and internal research teams that solicit such services, to both make the technological leap out of necessity.

Greenbook’s GRIT report tracked research methods used by both suppliers and buyers of they currently use; in the 2019 GRIT, 80% of buyers within that study answered they were “currently using” in-person groups, whereas 49% study noted the use the online variation. Two years later in 2021 and during the height of Covid the same question was asked, showing buyers usage of online groups had grown to 67% and dipping to 60% for in-person. As Covid restrictions dissipated and things began to open, the 2022’s Grit Report survey wave shown in-person groups trending back upward to 67% buyers listing usage. This re-emergence of in-person group usage didn’t come at the expense or a drop in online focus groups, rather, online groups had increased as well, landing at 70% usage on the most recent Grit Report wave in 2022, now toping it’s in person variation and proving the viability of online research as a valuable qualitative insights tool.

The Future of Focus Groups

Focus groups continue to be an important piece of modern research ensemble. The global market research body ESOMAR reported the rise in qualitative research as a percentage of overall research revenue grew from 8 percent to 16 percent, a growing piece within a $140 billion industry. This revenue incentive will bring with it new players with unconventional offerings, they will also make the act of structuring and organizing the group more streamlined by offering efficient ways to: build discussion guides, recruit, transcribe, and ultimately create the findings with their stakeholders.

Recently, generative AI is increasingly used alongside several research tasks, including recording, summarizing, and translating text of discussions; and more recently playing a role building and suggesting questions for live moderators in real-time, additionally, recent advancement in text analysis features allow for building summaries, key word and theme finding and sentiment analysis models giving added efficiency to the modern research practitioner. Things are advancing quickly, but not long ago the only way to conduct groups was expensive, and was only available to the those with the resources and connections to organise qualitative research’s flagship methodology. These and other advancement will offer more generalist, or more multi-method researchers the capabilities to wield the pieces needed to conduct focus groups.

Focus Groups will continue to be a method used by both the focused specialist honing their qualitative expertise as well as multi-faceted generalist who will add focus groups as a tool in their growing repertoire.

In-person or online skills are increasingly being melded together as new tools become easily accessible, however, the core competencies are still needed in today’s research industry to properly conduct a focus group, these include planning, design and implementation, as well as the deep understanding of the subject matter and participants which will inform the insights that researchers are expected to produce. Focusing on the foundational skills will ensure focus groups are not simply left to automation and replication, and this will ensure competence and knowledge, which will help to propel focus group’s upward trajectory as a viable research method for decades to come. If adaptation is baked into what makes qualitative researchers‘ persevere in fast moving and challenging situations, then ’Quallies’ will need to pull from what makes them distinct as the research landscape rapidly evolves.

More Blogs

Synthetic Data Generation: Revolutionizing Market Research and Business Insights

Read full blog

Understanding the Net Promoter Score (NPS): A Key Metric in Market Research

Read full blog

Top Trends in Customer Satisfaction Surveys for 2024

Read full blog