Market research is an integral aspect of product development for food companies. Through market research, companies ascertain their target consumers, identify the most effective marketing strategies, and discover unmet needs in the market. Focus groups, which garner opinions and generate ideas from the 6-12 participants in each group, are an effective form of market research. Although focus groups achieve important ends, they are not without their downsides.
Focus group research achieves a number of aims for food companies. Focus groups allow food companies to identify attributes of their target consumers and tailor their marketing strategies to those consumers. Food companies benefit from investigating the opinions of consumers on such topics as packaging, acceptable price points, and expected points of sale. Food companies should pay close attention to words and phrases repetitively used by focus group participants so that marketing messages can be updated to reflect the vernacular of consumers.
Unlike surveys and structured interviews, focus groups give the researcher the opportunity to clarify ambiguous answers and subtle differences in opinion. Participants often build off each other’s ideas, providing food companies with well-developed opinions as well as insight into the consumer’s thought process. Moreover, focus groups help food companies identify unmet needs in the market and, hence, opportunities for product development.
Although they serve a number of important functions, focus groups have their limits. Focus groups are not a free or low-cost form of research. Factoring in the cost of compensating participants, fees for a professional moderator and facility, and any expenses related to travel, a couple focus groups might cost around $20,000. Additionally, focus groups are qualitative by design and cannot be substituted for quantitative, generalizable research. In other words, focus groups do not provide data on population trends and aggregate opinions due to the small sample size and discussion based structure.
Focus group participants should not be expected to discuss sensitive topics as group dynamics tend to make participants uncomfortable with disclosing personal information (for instance, insights on alcohol use might be more appropriately gathered through means other than focus groups). Even the best focus groups will not tell businesses exactly what their next move should be. Instead, focus groups provide a backdrop of knowledge through which food companies make better-informed decisions.
In addition to understanding what focus groups do and do not achieve, researchers should also be aware of some common pitfalls of focus groups. Imbalanced participation easily occurs in a focus group discussion. A number of group and individual dynamics can cause an imbalance in participation. For instance, one persuasive participant might sway others’ opinions before they are even expressed, or a shy participant might feel uncomfortable disagreeing with the rest of the group. Although some causes of uneven participation are unavoidable, the moderator should seek to create an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere for everyone.
Intrusive or incomplete forms of recording sessions are also problematic. Notetaking, for example, can distract the natural flow of the conversation and does not guarantee that everything is heard. For these reasons, discreetly recording audio is recommended for tracking the conversation. Additionally, focus group discussions easily get off topic. It is the role of the moderator to steer the conversation back on track whenever it drifts.
Focus groups yield valuable information. However, food companies should be aware of the limits and pitfalls of this kind of research. A vital aspect of product development, market research with focus groups helps food companies pinpoint their target consumers, identify the most effective approaches to marketing, and discern consumer needs that are unmet. With the proper use of focus groups, food companies can glean detailed insights that may inform future business decisions.
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