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If you’re considering qualitative research to help you understand your customers on a deeper level – that is to say, beyond what statistics and Big Data patterns reveal – there are a variety of methods to conduct person-to-person qualitative research. If your study seeks to better understand opinions, motivations, and preferences (versus a study that would observe shopping or mobile and online patterns), the two main qualitative methods are focus groups and in-depth interviews (commonly abbreviated IDIs). In this blog, we’ll discuss the differences between the two approaches, and explain what types of studies each method is best suited for.

First off: Why choose focus groups?

Focus groups bring together a group of people into one setting, either in-person or online, and a moderator facilitates a group discussion about a topic. The group dynamic leads to brainstorming, generating ideas, and a deepening of the discussion because of the variety of participants and their experiences. Typically, focus group participants are chosen because of their profile – either they fit a customer persona for a company, or they have relevant industry or personal experience with a product. Often, a few participants are chosen for their “non-typical” patterns, if the study design is seeking opinions outside of their typical customer profile.

An ideal focus group size is between 4-10 participants, and a study design will include at least 2-3 groups (and upwards of 4-6 groups) of participants to give the total study sample a more robust data sample. In-person focus groups are usually held at focus group facilities, which offer amenities such as DVD recording, live streaming, and a neutral location for participants to come to. Focus groups may also be held in hotel conference rooms or non-client offices. Alternatively, groups can be held in dyads or triads (one researcher, two or three participants) for a deeper dive into topics.

Online focus groups offer the convenience of letting people participate from the comfort of their homes or offices, and they allow the study to pull from a nationwide sample versus a localized market sample. A moderator will lead the discussion, and participants are able to see other participants through their webcams. The moderator can upload prompts and stimulus materials to aid in the discussion.

Focus groups are best suited to situations that are conducive to group input and brainstorming. For example, if a company is testing out a product concept and would like feedback from multiple people in an industry, or if a company is developing a new ad campaign or messaging, focus groups allow for group participation, brainstorming, and generating new ideas through active discussion. Focus groups can be an amazing platform to generate creativity and test ideas, and the insights they provide can be truly transformative for product development and marketing.

And what about In-Depth Interviews?

In-depth interviews consist of one-on-one interviews with clients, prospects, or industry experts that a company is seeking to better understand. They can be held in-person or over the phone, and they will last anywhere from a half hour to two hours. A moderator will take the participant through a discussion guide, and as topics come up, the moderator may probe for further insight or ask additional questions.

In-depth interviews are best suited to topics that may be sensitive in nature, such as financial questions, input on personal care products, or confidential company policies. The flexibility of in-depth interviews – because they can be conducted over the phone – also makes them a popular qualitative methodology. The participant pool can come from a nationwide pool, versus just select markets, and the interviews can be spread out over time. A drawback of in-depth interviews is that they don’t allow for multiple perspectives at once, but a skilled interviewer can also spend more time on topics with the participant.

When should you conduct focus groups or in-depth interviews?

Focus groups and in-depth interviews are suitable at any stage of project, but they are ideally held before a project concept goes to market or before a campaign is launched. Too often, companies launch a product or campaign, only to realize that it’s not as successful as they would have hoped. They then bring in market research to help refine the product, but they end up spending unnecessary cost on developing and releasing a product or campaign that could have been refined early on.

Any and every company that develops products and campaigns can benefit from the deep insights that focus groups and in-depth interviews offer.

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