An introduction to focus groups
An introduction to focus groups
30 MARCH 2011 8:22 AM

Focus groups help hotel organizations determine, among other things, competitive differentiators, consumer preferences, product value and fair and maximum pricing levels.


Editor's note: This is the first article in a two-party series on focus groups. Read part No. 2, "Focus groups for hospitality businesses."

BOULDER, Colorado—Marketing personnel have more research options available to them than ever before. The popularity of existing research methodologies waxes and wanes, and new approaches are constantly being introduced. One methodology that has stood the test of time, despite much debate, is the focus group. 

Opinions of focus groups range from “the gold standard research technique” to “expensive waste of time.” While it’s true focus groups can be misused and are overused in some industries, a properly planned and executed focus group is an invaluable complement to other research methodologies. Focus groups actually are significantly underutilized in many industries.

This article, the first of two, seeks to clarify the unique benefits of focus groups and help readers start thinking about how to apply focus groups in a practical way, as an essential component of a research program, to enhance their hospitality industry businesses. 

What makes focus groups unique?
What distinguishes the focus group from virtually all other forms of marketing research is open-ended group interaction. Respondents can answer questions in their own words and provide much richer responses than if forced to give yes/no, multiple choice or numerical answers. Participants also are able to react to each others’ responses and build on each others’ ideas, draw each other out and spark new ideas. Researchers are able to delve deeply into complicated topics—often such delving just isn’t possible with surveys or quantitative data analysis. 

Another hallmark of focus groups, frequently mistaken for casualness, is their flexibility and spontaneity. More than any other method, focus groups allow for the emergence and pursuit of unexpected information. In a June 2003 article in Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, author Tom Greenbaum notes focus groups allow researchers to use non-verbal behavior as input and thereby collect more multi-faceted information than is possible with surveys or telephone interviews. Also, unlike many other forms of data collection, focus groups almost always are recorded, allowing sessions to be viewed repeatedly after memories fade. 

What can focus groups help me learn?
Given the characteristics described above, focus groups can be extremely valuable for answering the following types of questions:


  • What are the present satisfactions/dissatisfactions with our product/service and those of our competition? How are we differentiated from our competitors?
  • Why do people choose us? Our competitors?
  • What are our customers’ unfulfilled desires and needs? What improvements/enhancements are most desired and would most increase frequency of use or increase value?
  • What is the best way to communicate our concept?
  • What are our ads and promotional material actually communicating?
  • What is the true perceived value of our product? What are fair and maximum pricing levels?

How should I use focus groups?
Focus groups often are most valuable when used in conjunction with other research tools as a piece of a broader research effort. Karen Sandberg, in a Harvard Management Communication Letter, writes “use focus groups not to draw conclusions, but to understand the conclusions drawn.”

Shannon Halgren, user experience expert and founder of Sage Research & Design notes, “Qualitative research explains the why behind the numbers that quantitative research generates: Why did we experience a dip in last weekend's numbers? Why are mid-season sales so high this year?”

How can I make the most of my focus groups?
How does one know when focus groups are a good use of resources? How do you make the most of them? The short answer is to seek the guidance of experienced market research professionals and ensure every aspect of your group is carefully planned. George Silverman, in his Client Guide to the Focus Group, writes “The truth is that focus groups require a considerable amount of professional discipline in their design, execution, and interpretation. … It is the superficial and intentional resemblance of focus groups to simple group discussions that often causes them to be mistaken for simple group discussions.”

Some tips for a successful focus group:


  • Be clear on the primary purpose of your research. Establishing clear goals at the outset of a project will inform discussion guide development, moderator selection and participant recruiting.
  • Hire an experienced moderator. Effective moderating is a skill—it takes practice!
  • Be sure qualified participants are carefully recruited based on clear criteria. Even the best moderators and the most thoughtfully-designed discussion guides are worthless if the wrong respondents are in the room.
  • Know that it’s often desirable to conduct more than one focus group. Multiple sessions allow for a greater diversity of opinions and/or a clearer consensus. Reliability of results is greatly enhanced when the results of several focus groups are evaluated together.  
  • Do not expect quantitative data to come from your focus group. Though focus groups work well for investigating in-depth opinions, attitudes, beliefs, etc., they are unreliable for determining the exact percentage of people in the overall population who hold a particular opinion.
  • Keep your mind and your ears open—people are often pleasantly surprised by how much they learn from focus groups!

The second article in this series, published tomorrow, aims to help readers understand how qualitative research, and focus groups in particular, can be used in the hotel and hospitality industry to stay in tune with customers’ needs and to test new ideas.

If you would like to learn more about what focus groups can do for your organization, visit and click on ‘Focus Groups.’  

RRC Associates is a full-service research company that is experienced in implementing surveys using multiple techniques: Web, mail, phone and intercept. In addition, the firm owns and operates a qualitative research facility, the Boulder Focus Center. RRC clients benefit from the firm’s ability to employ mixed methodologies and select the most appropriate methodologies based on each client’s unique needs.

1 Comment

  • Michaela Mora April 6, 2011 11:57 AM

    Great post! Can you tell which article in the Harvard Management Communication Letter are you referring to regarding the quote from Karen Sandberg?

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