The Problem with Focus Groups

by Sean Boyce
problems with focus groups - dark room with group of people at a table

Market researchers have been using focus groups as a tool for over 60 years.  While they can be useful in some instances, the epic failures of some products can be directly attributable to information gained through focus groups. 

The most famous product launch disaster is still – even after almost 35 years – the introduction of “New Coke”.  Coca Cola, worried about declining sales and the growing popularity of Pepsi, tested a new formula that was very well received in focus groups.  As it turned out, taste wasn’t the only factor in the purchase of colas. Brand loyalty and popularity also come into play. The launch of New Coke was met with an overwhelmingly negative response from the market.  Irate consumers boycotted the product, and some even hoarded cases of Coke Classic.  Acknowledging their mistake, Coca Cola phased the new formula out over time.

The biggest take-away from this case is that what people say in focus groups and how they actually act are often completely different.  There are many more problems inherent in focus groups.

Problems with the moderator

A moderator’s abilities can affect the results of a focus group study. How they run the group, plus their own background and biases, can do more to determine the outcome of the research than what participants actually say. If the moderator appeals to some people more than others, or worse, if he or she favors the responses from some over the rest, this too will color the results.  Finally, there’s the danger of the moderator hearing what they want to hear and seeing what they want to see, therefore coming to conclusions that they were expecting before they even entered the room.

Problems with participants

Another challenge with focus groups has to deal with the environment..  People may not be comfortable sharing their opinions in front of a group of strangers.  They may want to please the moderator with their answers, or “fit in” with other members of the group.  They may not have a strong opinion either way, or be secure enough to express their opinions, so they take the easy way out by agreeing with the majority. 

It’s embarrassing to admit that you don’t know something so there’s a tendency for participants to try and blend in and avoid standing out from the crowd.. Lastly, while it may be easy to state that we like something, it’s not always easy to explain why, which is an important detail for marketers.  

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Problems with the process

Between recruiting incentives, facility rentals and refreshments, focus groups can be very expensive. The time necessary to plan, develop and review the results is also costly in terms of staffing.  Most of all, the primary focus of these groups is asking, as opposed to observing, which is why results are so often questionable.

These deficiencies of focus groups are why we at NxtStep recommend a series of more  personal one-on-one interviews for gathering data. The same eight people you might have in a focus group could be interviewed individually and the results are likely to be very different.  In a one-on-one conversation, the interviewee is allowed to direct the conversation to what most concerns them, without having to filter their opinions. The spotlight is on them, and it’s much more likely you will find out what their real concerns are, what they actually think, and what they find important.  This is the real data you need to build a great product..

Let’s talk about how to get the data you need the right way.  Email me at or check us out on the web at NxtStep.

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