Perhaps the most widely used indirect interview is a focus group.

A focus group doesn’t use the traditional question-and-answer format. Instead, a moderator conducts a discussion of about 8 to 12 participants.

Focus groups are invaluable to exploratory research because they help you determine what consumers want, generate ideas, and test comprehension of promotional materials.

Raymond Johnson (1988) conducted an extensive review of focus groups, identifying four distinct categories. Each reflected an adaptation of an interviewing technique to solve one of four basic research problems.

The focus group types are as follows:

  • Exploratory studies: Researchers find out what consumers want and need.
  • Concept reaction studies: Potential customers react to a concept still in its formative or experimental stage.
  • Habits and usage studies: Actual consumers describe detailed personal experiences in using a particular product or service.
  • Media Testing: Respondents interpret the message of a rough media strategy. They talk about their understanding of the message and evaluate whether or not they find it credible, interesting, and emotionally involving.

Why do focus groups work?

One view is that clients are provided with a gut-level grasp of their customers. They learn about customers’ self-perceptions, desires, and needs. Focus groups are not just for intellectual comprehension of consumers; they place clients in the customers’ shoes.

Such groups allow clients to see and feel how their customers think and react.

One critical aspect of a focus group’s success is the moderator. The moderator’s job is to focus the group’s discussion on the topics of interest. Thus, the moderator needs to explain the format and function of the group.

He/she must establish a rapport and introduce each topic. Once the respondents are comfortable, the moderator needs to keep the discussion on track while influencing how the discussion proceeds in an unbiased manner. A moderator has done a good job if the group members talk with each other, and not with the moderator.

When your focus group involves recruiting professionals (doctors, engineers, bankers, etc.), there are some unique implementation issues.

You have to pay special attention to recruitment, type of compensation or gratuity, convenience of the facility to be used, and the moderator. Moderators in professional focus groups are authorities on research in the field.

Focus groups don’t always need to be in-person interactions. They can be conducted by telephone or over the Internet by use of a conference call. In this approach, respondents may be recruited from across the country and told to call a toll-free number at a certain time to participate.

Simon (1988) listed some of the advantages of this approach:

  1. Groups can have tremendous geographic diversity.
  2. Travel costs can be virtually eliminated.
  3. Recruitment is easier because you do not ask a respondent to spend an evening traveling to, sitting in, and returning from a facility.
  4. Mixed groups (on any dimension) are not a problem.
  5. Bad weather generally has no effect on a group session.
  6. The information from a telephone interview is clean, concise, and to the point.
  7. Overbearing respondents can be “handled” (dropped from the call) without disrupting the group.
  8. Concept testing is easy.

One disadvantage of the telephone focus group is that you lose the ability to observe behavior.

However, with technological help, you can now view focus groups live without traveling to the geographic areas where they are held. With this possibility of preserving non-verbal communication (observable behaviors), focus groups are becoming global.

You can capture and interpret nonverbal information such as body language, voice inflection, facial expression, and interactions between people. These observations are critical to an accurate portrayal of focus group interactions.