Bringing Research Value Into Focus: Five Common Focus Group Challenges

by Steve Boespflug

A recent Geico commercial shows their spokesperson (spokes-Gecko) read a line in his smooth British accent:  “Other insurance companies are green with envy.”  He doesn’t like the reference to his skin color and shouts “It’s rubbish,” to which a director replies, “But the focus groups thought that…”  The annoyed Gecko cuts the director off: “Focus groups?  Geico doesn’t use focus groups!  No one told me we were using focus groups!”

Geico does an excellent job of creating and maintaining funny, independent-minded characters that have us all laughing and anticipating what’s next.  The irony of this particular commercial is that Geico most certainly uses focus groups to test their commercials.  Otherwise those commercials wouldn’t be so likable and memorable.

Focus groups are important for marketers to gain a deep understanding of who consumers and buyers are, why they consume and buy, what makes them remember particular brands, and why they tell their friends about their favorite brands.  But focus groups must be used properly.  Having designed hundreds of qualitative research projects over the past 20 years, I’ve learned how to design and conduct successful focus groups to support multimillion dollar decisions.

To maximize the effectiveness and reliability of focus groups, one should pay close attention to some common challenges that lead to ‘disconnects’ between what consumers say they will do and what they actually do.

  1. Common challenge: It’s difficult to draw out the innermost thoughts that lead to the most accurate findings.  Important deeper “truths” can go unidentified in a focus group because of social dominance, age, career levels or status differences, privacy or confidentiality issues, eagerness to please, etc.

How To Address: Start by strategically choosing segment quotas and carefully designing screening questions.  The more similar participants are, the more comfortable they’ll be.  A skilled moderator can also control the group by introducing ground rules and not allowing the more talkative to speak first or as much:  “Please hold your comments until we hear from others.”  Another tool is having participants write down answers before presenting them to the entire group.


  1. Common challenge: When focus groups involve advertising or product concept testing, it’s difficult to accurately predict potential word-of-mouth influences.

How To Address: Consider advertising levels, channels and buzz generated by similar product launches or ads in the past.  Ask participants what they believe to be most effective and how they normally vocalize adverting messages and new purchases.  Ideally, present alternative ad concepts to stimulate comparative comments.


  1. Common challenge: The influence of price is under- or overestimated compared to what happens in the real world.

How To Address: First discuss product concepts without pricing.  Then ask questions to understand how participants think about price and how price has influenced them on past similar purchases.


  1. Common challenge: Not all competitor or substitute products can be accounted for in a focus group setting.  These are often products that can inhibit a new product’s success.

How To Address: Ask participants to think about competing or similar products they’ve used in the past and have them express how they compare to the product or service being researched.


  1. Common challenge: There’s not enough time to cover everything in a focus group.

How To Address: A free-flowing discussion is important but can’t happen if the moderator is rushing to fit all the questions in.  Trim the objectives of the project if necessary. Create a section at the end of the guide called “If we have time.”   The importance of having enough time to build rapport and trust is often under-acknowledged.  It takes time to gain the trust necessary to draw out the deeper, more realistic and often hidden (intentionally or unintentionally hidden) preferences, thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors of participants.  Another way to address time constraints is by meeting with smaller groups of five or six participants.  This increases the amount of time each participant can contribute.

Focus groups provide us with directional clues on how customers and potential customers will react to our ideas, new or upgraded products and services, and advertising messages.  They do not have the predictive power of quantitative approaches, but by overcoming these common challenges the quality of results can be improved significantly.

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