There are many reasons and applications for a focus group.  However, in market research, focus groups should not be your only source of data.  Usually direct observation of one person at a time is also done to supplement the data collected in a focus group.  The decision to use a focus group over any other type of information gathering comes based on a number of different situations. Focus groups are appropriately used to explore feelings, perceptions and motivations, understand why consumers react to a product or advertising message in a certain way, provide guidance to a development process (e.g. advertising, packaging, product development), explore issues to form hypotheses when none exist, understand the story and why behind the numbers from quantitative studies or key performance metrics (e.g. sales), provide input about issues that should be measured using quantitative research.

One reason a focus group may be used is when the target audience is so different from decision makers that different terminology and points of view can be illuminated and understood (this information can be useful when constructing questionnaires for those audiences).  They can also be used when there is little information on a specific topic or interest is known.  At this point a Focus Group is used to gather information about what the target audience does already know about the topic or interest.

Focus groups are also used when information about behaviors and motivations are too complex for a questionnaire to reveal.  Focus Groups can get at more honest and in depth information.  While several respondents completing a questionnaire may indicate that they ‘agree’ with an item, focus groups may reveal fundamental differences among group members concerning the conditions of that agreement.  The group members may question situations in which that agreement was made.  An effective focus group will obtain meaningful, honest information. Superficial or patronizing responses as well as critical responses can be challenged and or put into an appropriate context unlike a questionnaire.

Another situation in which a focus group may be used is within a company itself.  Where there is organizational conflict or alienation, members of focus groups may feel ‘listened to’. This may result in an honest and meaningful exchange of information.  The group members in this situation may reveal information about the work environment that they may not normally have shared.