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How focus groups work – a real-life perspective

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

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Why read this? : We look at the realities of how focus groups work. Learn what’s most and least useful about them as a way to gather feedback. Read this for ideas on how to make your focus group work better.

There’s a familiar scene in the life of all marketers. It’s fairly late. Let’s say 10.30 pm.

You’ve just arrived home.

Your significant other asks why you’re so late. You explain you’ve been watching focus groups for the last 3 hours. 

What’s a focus group?” they ask.

You sigh wearily.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Ah, it’s when you sit in a dark room with a bunch of your marketing and agency colleagues. You’re behind a 1-way mirror and you listen to strangers talk about your new product or advertising campaign. Usually, they complain about something, and tell you how it could be ‘better’”.

And was it useful?

Um. That depends on your definition of ‘useful’.

5 ‘useful’ things about how focus groups work

Out of office

It’s a chance to get out of the office. That’s always a good thing.


There’s always a huge amount of snacks and food in the room. With an evening focus group, be prepared to be awake at 3am from the sugar rush.

Watch and listen

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

It’s the only way you can watch and listen to customers without them seeing you. Even though it’s voyeuristic. You tell respondents people are watching, but they forget. So you get to watch someone pick their nose when they think no one’s looking. Which is weird.


The respondents may come up with a great idea. Better than you might get in your own idea generation meeting, for example. They may inspire your innovation or advert to go in a different direction. Which could wreck months of work. However, they may also talk complete rubbish. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. But you take the chance at least one group will come up with something good.

Unfiltered and unbiased

Respondents who know about marketing are screened out in advance. It means you get to solutions unfiltered and unbiased by marketing jargon. No BS. This is a good thing. Marketers generally find it hard to talk without using jargon or BS.

5 ‘not so useful’ things about how focus groups work

Unnatural setting

It’s an unnatural setting. How often do you discuss your preferences in toothpaste, home insurance or nappies with a room of strangers? Never.

So how likely is it that what comes up in the focus group reflects what happens back in ‘real’ life?

Group dynamics

Group dynamics have a huge impact.

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

There’s always a loudmouth who dominates the group. And at least 2 people who never say anything unless directly asked.

Good moderators look out for this, but it still affects the group conversation. It’s often the loudest voice that’s heard the most. This can make some focus groups hard work to watch. 

Reviewing unfinished work

In most cases, the group don’t see finished products or advertising campaigns. Instead, they see a series of ‘scamps’. Rough line drawings of the story of the idea. Or they see ‘concept boards’. A Twitter-style statement about the idea. The respondents are asked to comment on these, not the actual product or advert. This is like showing you the meal ingredients before it’s cooked, and asking if you think it’ll taste good.

Paid to be there

Everyone in the room is paid to be there. So it’s hard to avoid bias. When you pay people, they’ll tend to look for positives to reciprocate being paid to give their opinion.

Random strangers

In a focus group, you listen to the views of 6-10 customers. The fact they’re ‘normal’ customers, and not other marketers is good.

But arguably you could go into your local cafe / pub / shopping centre and pick another bunch of random strangers. And get a completely different response. The quality of the sample is up to the research company. You have to cross your fingers that they find a ‘good’ group for you.

Use focus groups wisely

For all this, we still think there’s some value in working with focus groups. And not just for the time out of office, the snacks and the voyeurism. It puts you in the (next) room with customers and lets you hear them talk about your brand honestly. Even if that honesty can be painful to hear sometimes. 

Watching (and listening) to people who use your product BUT who aren’t marketing experts gives you some real-life perspective. As a marketer, you have to see the world the way customers do.

When you work in brand strategy, that’s your all-day, every-day reason for being. So it’s very easy to fall into the trap that if YOU think like that, then surely customers will too. But real life’s not like that. 

Focus on the customer’s perspective

And that’s the key point in how focus groups work in your whole marketing activity.

Because, if you don’t take the time to ask customers questions and listen to their answers, you’ll never know what they want. Feedback matters a lot. 

That’s why market research is so important.  

Focus groups at a theoretical level are a qualitative research approach used to generate hypotheses and test out concepts with actual customers.

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

But for us, they also work at a more human level. They’re what forces marketers to not take themselves too seriously. They put a face on all the theories you learn from behavioural science or design psychology

Because your target audience doesn’t understand or care about your marketing plan. They care about what your brand will do for them.

For most brands, you have a few seconds of attention when the customer is at the supermarket shelf or googling your product or service online. Once they’ve decided, that’s it. They don’t think about your brand again, until the next time they need to buy. 

So spend some time in a focus group watching and listening to how they actually use your product. 

Conclusion - How focus groups work

Focus groups are great in the early stages of marketing innovation. They help you identify customer needs and how people currently solve their problems in your category.

They’re also helpful in the advertising development process. What might seem like a clear and compelling advertising idea when your agency presents it to you, might not have the same effect on your target audience.

Customers in focus groups don’t see your brief. They don’t know the brand like you do. But what you can get is their immediate and natural reaction to what you’re trying to do.

It’s more real than what you can come up with sitting at your desk or in a meeting. It’s as close to the real-life reaction as you can get. So, make these insights count. They’re what really matters in terms of how focus groups work.

Use them wisely.

Read our qualitative research guide, or email us to find out more. 

Photo credits

Snacks : Photo by Fernanda Rodríguez on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Dog ears : Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

Coffee Shop : Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

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