Special Session Summary Enhancing Focus Group Productivity: New Research and Insights

Terry Bristol, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
[ to cite ]:
Terry Bristol (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Enhancing Focus Group Productivity: New Research and Insights", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 479-482.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 479-482



Terry Bristol, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Focus group interviews are widely used by consumer researchers in both applied and theory development/testing research contexts to discover consumers’ thoughts, ideas, attitudes, opinions, intentions, and behaviors. Specific examples of focus group use include: uncovering customer service perceptions and expectations (Zeithaml 1988); generating components of consumers’ attitudes such as product attributes (Wilkie and Pessemier 1973); understanding consumers’ attitudes toward media (Donaton 1992); examining consumers’ perceptions of alpha-numeric brand names (Pavia and Costa 1993); understanding consumers’s attitudes toward brands (Kanner 1990); uncovering the health care beliefs of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants to the United States (Houston and Venkatesh 1996); identifying consumers’ emotions at various stages of the consumption experience (Krishnan and Olshavsky 1995); and exploring women’s beliefs and attitudes toward cancer screening (Coyne, Bloom, Andresen 1993). Recent volume estimates indicate that consumer researchers spend over $160 million in conducting over 200,000 focus group interviews in the U.S. per year (Greenbaum 1993; Honomichl 1998).

Despite the prevalence and importance of focus groups to consumer research, little is known, beyond what is in the assorted experiential guidebooks, about how to get the most out of this interviewing method. Although there have been calls for testing the quality of output produced by various methodological aspects of the focus group interviewing technique (Bristol and Fern 1993; Morgan 1993; Stewart and Shamdasani 1990), little research on the theoretical foundations nor systematic testing of this interviewing approach have appeared in the literature. In fact, much of the limited theoretical and empirical research that exists about focus group interviews was presented at previous ACR conferences (e.g., Bristol and Fern 1993; Corfman 1995; Dupont 1976; Fern 1982a; Fern 1983; McQuarrie and McIntyre 1988; Schloser and Shavitt 1997). The primary purpose of this session was to summarize in one place some of the most current empirical, theory-based research on enhancing focus group interview productivity. The secondary purpose of the session was to generate insights into both some of the challenges associated with using focus groups and the tactics researchers might use in planning and conducting this type of interview. To achieve these objectives, three papers were presented that examine how focus group participation and output can vary systematically by such design factors as group size, gender composition, and face-to-face vs. computer-mediated discussion format, as well as participant characteristics such as experience with the topic and ethnicity. In addition, the session used a roundtable format to provide a forum for discussion among consumer researchers who have used or were interested in using this interview technique.


Kim Corfman presented a model of focus group member participation in discussion and empirically explored the effects of a number of factors generally thought to influence discussion quality. She suggested that an alternative to assessing the overall "quality" of the group output is to measure factors that result in or are required for a productive group. Further, one generally agreed upon necessary condition for a successful focus group is that the members participate in the discussion and disclose information about themselvesBexperiences, beliefs, desires, etc.Bthat provides insight into the issue being studied.

Corfman examined group member traits (self-esteem and gender), topic-related interest and experience, participant relationship to the group (number of members, acquaintanceship, and heterogeneity), and participant relationship to the moderator (liking and proximity). As a more objective measure, focus group transcripts were content analyzed for evidence of participation and self-disclosure (references to self). She tested the hypothesized relationships by conducting 11 focus groups on the topic of diet and weight loss products. She used individual questionnaires both before and after the group interviews, to gather information on member characteristics and reactions to the group.

Corfman found that focus group members who had higher self-esteem, who had experience with the product category being discussed, who liked the moderator less, and whose groups were smaller, participated more in the discussion and disclosed more about themselves. She also reported that ethnicity and weight (vs. ideal) influenced participation and self-disclosure on this topic. While topic relevance (desire to lose weight) increased participation, it did not influence self-disclosure. In addition, she found that participants did not have accurate perceptions of their own levels of participation.

Terry Bristol presented work by Fern, Bristol, Mandrik, and Adkins examining the number and intimacy of self-disclosures in focus group interviews as a function of the acquaintanceship and gender composition of the group. He noted that consumer researchers often use focus groups to help understand personal and otherwise private consumption experiences. Further, two basic assumptions of group makeup underlie the use of focus groups for uncovering intimate self-disclosures: (1) group members should be strangers, and (2) group members should be of the same gender. Strangers are recommended because it is thought that acquaintances will cause each other to become inhibited and reluctant to disclose personal information (Smith 1972). For example, Krueger (1988) likens strangers in focus groups to individuals seated next to a stranger on an airplaneBthey will share personal information with each other because they are unlikely to ever see each other again. Regarding the gender assumption, Goldman and McDonald (1987) advise that men and women should be segregated if sensitive issues are to be discussed. Bristl suggested that while the limited empirical evidence leads to the conclusion that participant acquaintanceship doesn’t matter (Fern 1982b; Nelson and Frontczak 1988), empirical evidence in support of the gender assumption is nonexistent.

Bristol presented hypotheses derived from the growing body of literature on gender and self-disclosure. Fern, Bristol, Mandrik, and Adkins tested the hypotheses using a research design consisting of one controlled factor (gender composition) and one measured factor (acquaintanceship). They varied gender composition across three levels, either all-male, all-female, or half male and half female focus groups. They measured acquaintanceship composition as the degree to which other participants are strangers or acquaintances. Two gender neutral topicsBfinancial services and personal financesBwere the focus of the discussion in their focus groups, with the latter representing the highly intimate topic of interest. Bristol reported that frequent consumers of these services, undergraduate students, were randomly assigned to four-person focus groups or "mini-groups." The dependent variables were twofold: (1) the overall intimate quality of the information disclosed by each participant as assessed by the moderators, and (2) the quantity of highly intimate self-disclosures expressed by each participant as coded from the taped interviews.

Bristol reported results demonstrating that the impact of participant gender and acquaintanceship on interview output may be more complicated than focus group guidebooks might indicate. As hypothesized, Fern, Bristol, Mandrik, and Adkins found that the overall intimacy and the number of self-disclosure varied by gender composition of the group when the participants were acquaintances, but did not vary by group composition when the participants were strangers. In addition, their data revealed that the number of intimate disclosures made by males was greatest when the other participants were strangers, while females disclosed more among groups of acquaintances.

Ann Schlosser’s paper investigated the impact of communication mediumBwhether the focus groups are traditional, face-to-face interviews, or computer-mediated interviewsBon the contributions of gender-minority and majority participants in the interviews. She stated that guidebooks for conducting effective focus groups often warn against conducting mixed-sexed focus groups, especially if the focal topic is gender-specific (Krueger, 1988; Morgan, 1988). Indeed, research has demonstrated sex differences in face-to-face discussions such as males dominating the group discussion. Such an effect diminishes, however, when the discussion is computer-mediated rather than face-to-face (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992). Schlosser suggested that examining computer-mediated (CM) group discussion has important market research implications, especially given the multiple monetary and temporal advantages it offers over conducting face-to-face (FTF) focus groups (Thorell, 1994). Yet, the dependent variables examined in past research comparing CM and FTF groups are often attitudinal or the quantity of information discussed rather than the actual content of the contributions made to discussion. Schlosser’s study empirically examined how being in the majority versus minority sex in a FTF versus CM group influences the type of product attributes discussed and the judgments held versus vocalized.

The types of product attributes she compared are social identity and utilitarian attributes. Social identity attributes capture the social image the product conveys to others (e.g., social status, personality). Utilitarian attributes capture the intrinsic quality of the product (e.g., reliability). Social identity attributes are symbolic, expressive and subjective, whereas utilitarian attributes are instrumental and objective (Herek, 1986; Shavitt, 1989) B qualities that have been identified as feminine versus masculine, respectively (cf., Hirschman, 1993). Schlosser noted that these qualities are culturally associated with the roles of females and males rather than inherent to being female versus male. Hence, males and females ma respond in a manner consistent with gender roles when their sex is particularly salient. Otherwise, males and females should respond similarly to products.

Schlosser proposed that one’s sex will be particularly salient in FTF (not CM) groups, especially when the individual is in the minority of the sex composition of the group (e.g., a male in a majority female group). When one’s sex is salient, corresponding gender roles will likewise become more salient. More specifically, females will say more social identity (feminine) attributes than males when they are in a male-dominated rather than female-dominated FTF group. Likewise, males will say more utilitarian (masculine) attributes than females when they are in the female-dominated rather than male-dominated FTF group. Her results support these hypotheses. Furthermore, her results cannot be explained in terms of differences in what her respondents processed, rehearsed and/or recalled. Instead, she noted that minority members appear to selectively tailor their responses during discussion. She conducted additional evaluative analyses that indicate that those in the minority also adjust their public attitudes from their privately held attitudes more than those in the majority do. And, she found that these adjusted public attitudes appear to be internalized, affecting product judgments made after the group discussion. Schlosser concluded that her results suggest that market researchers should use caution in interpreting the minority members’ contributions in mixed-sex FTF groups, even if the product under evaluation is gender-nonspecific.


A roundtable discussion among the session participants followed the three paper presentations. The topics discussed consisted of three basic themes: (1) focus group practices and trends in focus group use; (2) existing theoretical and empirical-based knowledge concerning "best" interview practices and trends in this research; and (3) those elements of the focus group technique that require further explanation, normative direction, and empirical investigation. With regard to current practices, participants said that many firms currently conduct group interviews over the telephone and increasingly use computer-mediated interviews. However, it is unclear as to how the dynamics of such groups differ from those found in face-to-face interviews and what caveats might apply to using interviews that lack face-to-face aspects. Computer-mediated groups offer a point of comparison for traditional face-to-face focus group interviews, both in terms of output and in terms of those elements of the technique that influence output. Participants also noted that many focus groups in applied research contexts involve gaining consumers’ reactions to actual physical stimuli, such as advertisements, products, or labels. How the group and discussion dynamics might influence reactions to such stimuli is uncertain, as most empirical investigations of focus groups have concentrated on consumers’ reactions to less tangible concepts, consumers’ ideas, or consumers’ existing beliefs or recollections. Many also noted that other methodological techniques are often used in combination with focus group interviews. For example, forced-choice and open-ended questionnaires are commonly used at the beginning or at the end of focus group interviews.

Session participants pointed out that focus groups are increasingly used in political campaigns. As such, the use or misuse of the method can influence public policies that are derived from platforms developed during these campaigns. This trend is apparent not only in the U.S., but also internationally. For example, one participant indicated that focus group usage in Australian political campaigns has supplanted the traditional use of opinion polls. In addition, the U.S. government is considering focus group interviews as a methodology to supplement use of survey-type techniques in developing and tsting public policies and policy approaches.

Session participants indicated that the existing theoretical and empirical body of knowledge concerning focus group use and output is limited mainly to the use of the technique for idea generation. The brainstorming literature is well-developed. The existing research into computer-mediated interviews has also focused on brainstorming or decision development and support such as delphi techniques. However, we need conceptual and empirical research into the use of focus groups for other more common purposes such as uncovering consumers’ attitudes, opinions, feelings, or beliefs about products, stores, advertisements or other marketing relevant stimuli. And there is a lack of published research into those elements of the technique, such as recruitment, moderating approaches, and interview procedures, that may influence such output.

Participants noted that many of the conceptualizations of how focus groups work rely on the clinical and social psychology literatures. However, the end-goal of clinical settings may differ from that of researchers who use focus groups to discover what consumers think, feel, and know. In addition, most of the social psychological theories applicable to group interviews were developed within the context of dyadic interactions. Those settings may differ considerably from the average focus group, wherein individuals meet with multiple others with discourse and discussion as the group objective. Focus groups may represent a more natural, applied setting in which to test some of these social psychological theories. In addition, existing published research on focus groups has used the group as unit of analysis. However, as indicated in this session, rich data yielding meaningful findings are possible when the individual group member is treated as the unit of analysis.

Although some conceptual and empirical research exists regarding moderator practices (e.g., McDonald 1993), session participants expressed a need for more research regarding the effectiveness of various moderator techniques. In addition, participants wanted research going beyond guidebooks’ discourse about both group member domination of discussion and approaches for handling these situations. Group composition was suggested as a topic worth exploring. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. consumer population in terms of such variables as age, ethnicity, and social class, more research is needed into the impact composition has on interview output. Session participants also wanted more study regarding the number of group interviews considered sufficient to answer the interviewer’s focal research questions.

Finally, participants expressed concern over representativeness issues. Representativeness and generalizability of consumer responses gained through focus group interviews is subject to the same sampling constraints as survey data. However, the group context may produce responses more like those found in consumer settings involving interpersonal interaction, social influence, or group decision-making. Focus groups results may generalize less to settings involving intra-personal processes or consumption phenomena. Participants also noted that focus groups are often used to gain an understanding of the range of consumer responses, rather than the actual degree to which any particular response is held in the population of interest.


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