What is a Focus Group?

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

An alternate version of this article originally appeared on the blog home of the private club consulting firm, RCS Hospitality Group.

Part of what we do here at RCS is strategic planning for clubs, resorts, and hotels of all sizes. Strategic planning involves a tremendous amount of variables, all organized into one final report. One of those key variables is the focus group.

According to the Marketing Research Association, a focus group is defined as:

"A marketing research technique for qualitative data that involves a small group of people that share a common set of characteristics (demographics, attitudes, etc.) and participate in a discussion of predetermined topics led by a moderator."

The technique was developed after World War II to evaluate audience response to radio programs (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). Since then, researchers have found focus groups to be useful in understanding how or why people hold certain beliefs about a topic or item of interest.

The purpose of a focus group is to foster a real, honest exchange of feedback and ideas with small groups of individuals representative of a larger group. For example, you may be researching the needs of families within a club environment, and out of 100 member families, 10 are randomly chosen to participate in the focus group.

The average focus group size is 6-10 people but can be as many as 20. The discussion is conducted several times with similar types of participants in order to identify trends and patterns in perceptions.

It is the responsibility of the moderator to create a permissive and nurturing environment that encourages different perceptions and points of view, without pressuring participants to vote, plan, or reach consensus. Participants should understand that they are participating willingly and their opinions, along with those of others in the group (no matter how different), are valuable and necessary to paint a bigger picture.

There are many benefits to the use of focus groups as a research tool, including cost vs. time efficiency, ease of implementation, and flexibility. The researcher also has the benefit of interacting directly with respondents, allowing for clarification, follow-up questions, and further probing.

The in-person experience of a focus group can also help the moderator gain information from non-verbal responses to supplement (or even contradict) verbal responses. The final data uses respondents' own words, which can lead to the capture of more profound levels of meaning. This level of unique data helps the report writer make essential connections and identify subtle nuances.

Generally speaking, the process of a focus group unfolds like this:

  1. Individuals arrive, meet and greet with the moderator and each other, and apply name tags or name cards if requested to do so by the researcher. Small talk can be vital to developing rapport within the group.

  2. The moderator will set up a means of recording the session whether by tape recorder, video stream, or some combination thereof. Typically there will also be a research assistant taking written notes during the session.

  3. Participants are seated at a table such that they can all see each other. The moderator will begin the discussion. The typical pattern is: welcome, overview and topic, ground rules, and then the first question. The overview should provide an honest review of the purpose of the study and the importance of the topic of group discussion. Ground rules are suggestions that will help guide the session and include rules such as: minimize or eliminate side conversations, one person will speak at a time, don't criticize what others have to say, and treat everyone's ideas with respect. The first question is usually one that "breaks the ice" and encourages everyone to talk.

  4. The discussion commences. The moderator will usually have a list of 5-10 questions that he/she wants to cover, and uses it as a guideline. However, depending on time constraints, it's okay that conversation flows naturally as long as it stays on topic.

  5. A good researcher will employ the "pause and probe" technique during the conversation as necessary. As a general rule, a moderator should pause for five seconds after a participant talks before beginning to speak themselves. This five-second pause gives other participants a chance to jump in. Probes, such as "Can you explain that further?" or "Would you give me an example?" may be used to request additional information or clarification.

  6. Moderator concludes the focus group with a thank you, and may choose to summarize what was said.

The research team then writes a final report. In our work, typically the results of focus groups are compiled with other data gathered from surveys, interviews, on-site visits, and other data collection points and then written into the final strategic planning report.

A solid strategic plan maps out the moves a business must make to outwit the competition, captivate customers, increase long-term member value, and ensure bottom-line success.


Grace Everitt is a published writer & editor with nearly ten years of experience in both digital and print media. She is also the president of Grace Marketing Group, and spends her time bouncing between Florida and California.