Focus Groups

Focus Groups

In Brief

A focus group is a small group discussion designed to rapidly gain customer feedback on a given topic. It is like customer development, but performed in a group. In the lean startup world, it is often criticized for devolving into groupthink. The opinions of the most outgoing group members tend to dominate the discussion and distort the outcome. It can also be used to understand the dynamics behind group buying patterns/influences.

Helps Answer

  • How do customers influence one another in a group setting?
  • What do customers think?
  • What are the customers' problems?
  • What do they think about the product/solution?
  • What do customers think of alternatives?


  • B2C
  • B2B
  • Qualitative
  • Customer


Focus groups are a traditional method that larger companies use to hear the voice of the customer. Focus groups are a divergent tool to gather insights based on group conversations. When done well, group conversations help chain associations among group participants, supposedly resulting in a better sense of the subjective essence of customer feedback.

Focus groups have a long history. They were first used over 60 years ago by U.S. government sociologists investigating the effectiveness of WWII military propaganda movies. They are most often used in the context of:

  • Media consumption
  • Consumer product advertising
  • Traditional market research

According to Harvard Business Professor Gerald Zaltman, focus groups tap into only about five percent of people's thought processes — the five percent that lies above the level of consciousness.

Focus groups are quick and easy to design and use, particularly if there is a bigger budget available, as there are many companies and third parties that help recruit and organize focus group sessions.

They tend be more effective when used as a source of idea generation rather than a tool for verification. Overall, they are used to try to understand "unarticulated needs" directly in the voice of the customer.

According to, typical market research situations that might involve focus groups include:

  • To unravel complex processes from the basics, such as a complicated buying process
  • To identify customer needs (i.e., where there is a complex interaction of factors influencing motives)
  • To identify working practices, such as how a particular product is used
  • To test new products (i.e., when something needs to be shown to people)
  • To explore a concept with stimulus aids
  • To explore and identify issues of satisfaction for customers, staff, or suppliers
  • To explore perceptions of brand and service elements associated with the brand

Time Commitment and Resources

Three days prep (much less if you outsource participant recruitment) + 90 minutes per session + 1-4 hours to collate results

How to

  1. Pick a single, clear purpose. A single product or issue.
  2. Narrow down your target audience. Pick and talk to one group at a time.
  3. Consider organizing a control group to contrast group opinions against a larger market context.
  4. Refrain from using the focus group for ulterior motives.
  5. Find a second facilitator. Helps with note taking and other organizational issues to avoid group distractions.
  6. Choose a comfortable venue and recording method. Comfort and safety are critical when helping participants relax.
  7. Prepare up to ten questions.
    • Use open-ended questions.
    • Establish rapport.
    • Avoid jargon.
    • Avoid embarrassing or intimidating questions if you can, or only ask them towards the end of a session if participants feel comfortable.
  8. Plan ahead how you will record data. Consider:
    • Post-its
    • Evernote
    • Excel
    • Software tools
  9. Recruit 6-10 participants, using appropriate incentives/goodies.
    • Advertising
    • Specialized focus-group recruiter
    • Other existing marketing channels (from business model canvas)
  10. Pass out consent forms at the beginning of the meeting.
  11. Have everyone introduce themselves.
  12. Announce that the purpose of the meeting is to hold a brainstorming session to get participants' opinions, and inform participants that the session is being recorded.
  13. Ask questions. Use your original ones, but also throw in others. Ideally, participants will start to talk amongst themselves at some point so that you can withdraw from the conversation.
  14. Stay neutral and empathetic. Establish eye contact with participants who are speaking less.
  15. Take written notes during the session (assistant), including non-verbal cues as well as what was said.
  16. Prevent any individual from dominating the discussion. Use questions like, "Does anyone else have a different perspective?"
  17. Finish anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes after the start.
  18. Provide a feedback form.
  19. Repeat if you can. Run a few focus groups, just to get a diversity of opinions.

(adapted from

Interpreting Results

Use techniques to match patterns in responses, such as affinity mapping using post-its. Also, take note of language used by customers as well as any ideas generated during the discussion as a source of inspiration for further evaluation.

Potential Biases

  • Confirmation bias: Don't use focus groups to tell you what you already know. Listen for divergent opinions or the unexpected.
  • False positive: Your focus group may tell you things that aren't true for your market as a whole.
  • Difference between what customers say vs what they do/buy: Assume consumers are not capable of accurately describing why they make decisions.
  • Ability of moderator to lead a session: Moderators need to have enough skill to lead a group and manage the dynamic so that you don't lose useful information.
  • Unrepresentative sampling: Choosing the wrong participants devalues any insights you gain, as they won't be actionable.
  • Ulterior motives: Don't turn a focus group into a PR or sales opportunity. It will skew your results.

Field Tips

  • If you are considering focus groups, consider whether you can achieve the same with customer development interviews.
  • Start focus groups with simple questions that build participants' comfort level.
  • Check technical equipment before starting and have a contingency plan in place.
  • Focus group members may bring up false information or offensive opinions. Have a plan in place to handle them.
  • Got a tip? Add a tweetable quote by emailing us: [email protected]

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