The challenges of using marketing focus groups in B2B research

The challenges of using marketing focus groups in B2B research

Limitations of the focus group format

“We don’t do focus groups. They just ensure that you don’t offend anyone and produce bland, inoffensive products.”

The stance of former Apple chief design officer Sir Jony Ive is very telling when weighing up focus group pros and cons.

He alludes to some common problems with focus groups as a research methodology. They can be subject to:

  • ‘Groupthink’ – respondents choosing to agree with each other in search of conformity, harmony, or the hope they’ll get to go home earlier
  • Format flaws – quieter participants struggle to express their views or give feedback, so analysts may listen more to the louder respondents
  • Moderator bias – the moderator may feel pressure from the client behind the glass; they may try to sugarcoat criticism or harsh truths from respondents

However, some clients are more comfortable with focus groups than with any other type of methodology. Running a focus group is one of the more traditional qualitative data market research methods – it’s something most people are either familiar with or aware of.

Several clients want to see how their customers react to marketing stimuli or new product ideas with their own eyes, from the privacy of the backroom.

They feel reassured that focus group participants have signed an NDA, that confidential materials have only been printed out once, and that these materials won’t leave the room.

But these aren’t good enough reasons to expect senior B2B decision-makers to take part in focus group research.

Other research methods are a better use of their time and more convenient. Furthermore, the increased use of video technology to conduct market research means that there are now far more efficient ways to reach the right respondents.

Contents

Challenges of in-person focus groups in B2B research

In-person focus groups vs online focus groups

Best practices for finding alternatives to B2B focus groups

Challenges of in-person focus groups in B2B research

If that’s the case, why are in-person focus groups common in B2C market research but not B2B? A key difference is there are lots of respondents to choose from in consumer research: 

  • The screening criteria are less difficult to recruit for, as most consumer products are for a broad target audience
  • Some of this target audience are keen to give up their time to contribute towards how companies improve their products, or marketing, in exchange for incentives

The research company just needs to make sure the respondents fit the eligibility criteria and can articulate their views well. Once you have a room full of engaged consumers, a focus group discussion can be a useful format to get their feedback. 

It’s a discursive way to get wide-ranging reactions to new products, new ideas, or new information. A successful focus group is a time and cost-effective way to get insights within a couple of hours from a consumer target audience.

Using in-person focus group discussions for a B2B rather than B2C audience is more complicated though, for the following reasons:

  • Senior B2B decision-makers don’t have time for focus groups
  • The right people to invite are spread out geographically
  • It’s difficult to schedule a time they can all do
  • They won’t share sensitive information in front of competitors
  • It’s not an efficient way to get rich insights

This is why we don’t recommend in-person focus groups in B2B and prioritize other market research methods:

#1 Senior B2B decision-makers don’t have time for focus groups

Many focus groups last for up to two hours at a time, usually starting after work.

Since they’re in person, that means there’s also some travel time involved, so respondents may need to set aside three or four hours in total.

This is a big ask for senior B2B decision-makers, many of whom will work late.

And even if they could make it to a focus group in time, it’s very difficult to offer an incentive that would make it worth their while.

For example, if their time costs $100 an hour, they’re only likely to consider it as worth their time if you offer $200 an hour. Since most focus groups need two hours and have six to eight respondents – unless there is a budget for several mini focus groups – that adds up quickly.

Recruiting business decision-makers for B2B market research is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Reliable and high-quality B2B research respondents are hard to reach. 

Given their demanding roles, market research is a low priority for senior decision-makers in the first place. They’re more likely to take part if you make it easy for them, but asking them to travel to a two-hour long non-work related meeting isn’t the way to do it.

#2 The right people to invite are spread out geographically

In consumer research, it’s fairly straightforward to recruit a group of six to eight people in a given city.

But it’s much harder to find B2B decision-makers in one city who have the right level of seniority and are willing to take part in a focus group discussion.

In general, If you’re recruiting based on the principles of finding the best respondents who’ll give you the most valuable insights, it helps to cast the net as wide as possible.

That’s not practical for a focus group though because you have to factor in their travel time.

#3 It’s difficult to schedule a time they can all do

Most focus groups start at 6 pm or 8 pm. Often, you would run two back-to-back during the same evening, perhaps with different segments of the market one after the other.

Again, those in senior roles are time-poor. Even if they’re willing to take part, they’ll have time constraints and you won’t be able to pick and choose which group they attend.

Moreover, whereas some consumer research respondents can attend a focus group any weekday, B2B respondents may only have one or two evenings a week when they’re free.

Given their competing priorities, there’s also a high risk that B2B respondents will no-show on the day, particularly if something urgent and work-related comes up at the last minute.

#4 They won’t share sensitive information in front of competitors

Sometimes, respondents wanting to help you achieve the research goals will share exclusive information about their business, if it’s relevant. 

If it’s confidential information then they’ll ask you to grant them anonymity or keep some of their specific comments off the record.

This is not possible in a focus group discussion, meaning decision-makers will be reserved and guarded in a focus group involving other businesses in their sector.

Decision-makers won’t share exclusive information in front of potential competitors in their B2B markets and anonymity is impossible among focus group members.

#5 It’s not an efficient way to get rich insights

In a two-hour focus group with eight respondents, for example, each one may only speak for about 15 minutes. 

The rest of the time, they have to listen to everyone else speak and they’re not getting a chance to make meaningful contributions.

That’s more acceptable for a consumer audience – but it’s a big waste of senior executives’ time.

Some B2B decision-makers will gladly make time to support your research objectives – as long as they can see the benefits, and you can make it work with their busy schedules.

They need to be efficient and maximize their time. For example, they might agree to help if you can schedule a short interview in a lunch break, or in the morning before their commute.

Asking them to attend an in-person focus group is the opposite approach. It’s an inefficient way to get their insights and uses up more of their time than necessary.

In contrast, it’s more efficient to schedule eight individual 15-minute video call interviews. Both interviewer and respondent can use those 15 minutes more effectively than in a focus group, having a more targeted conversation and exploring topics in more specific detail.

We cover the advantages of using depth interviews instead of focus groups later in our best practices section.

In-person focus groups vs online focus groups

What about hosting a focus group online – does that fix these issues? Yes and no. For B2B studies, we see online focus groups as a slightly better research method than face-to-face ones. 

Similar to running workshops virtually, the biggest benefit is that location is no longer a barrier. No one has to travel, anyone can join remotely from home.

Everyone also saves some time. While the focus group may still be two hours long, there’s no travel time to and from a focus group venue for the respondents, moderator, or clients.

And there’s also a cost saving. Focus group venues can be expensive to hire for an evening, but it’s very cheap or even free to set up an online focus group via Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Webex, for example.

However, there are still several severe limitations to online focus groups. Key problems remain that affect the quality of the results:

  • It’s still difficult to schedule an online session for a time when everyone can make it. That means you risk choosing B2B respondents based on whether they’re free for a specific time slot, rather than whether they’re the best respondent for the study
  • In an online group, it’s harder to see several people on screen at once and pick up on their non-verbal cues
  • Online, it can be harder for moderators to keep engaged groups of people they don’t know. Disengaged respondents don’t provide good research results
  • In fact, some recruiters tell respondents they can take part in an online focus group while continuing to work. This is literally giving them permission not to concentrate on the research
  • Ultimately, senior decision-makers are unlikely to set aside their work and responsibilities to give you one or two hours of their time – it’s too much to ask

Online focus groups still have the same key limitations as offline ones too. 

The group format itself doesn’t work well in most B2B studies, because there’s too much time waiting for others to speak. Therefore, the session needs to be long. 

The format is also too open for senior decision-makers, who won’t want to risk saying something their competitors may find useful. Market research focus groups may be an option worth exploring for a less senior B2B audience with fewer time constraints though.

Best practices for finding alternatives to B2B focus groups

#1 Use one-to-one interviews instead for deeper insights

Overall, you tend to get better insights from a series of individual B2B interviews, rather than trying to run a B2B focus group.

In particular, the increasingly widespread use of video calling technology since the pandemic has made it easier to replicate the more visual elements of a focus group.

You can show respondents products or marketing stimuli via screen-sharing features, or use one-time links which they can’t click on again. 

These are secure ways of displaying sensitive materials and making sure respondents can’t see them again after the interview. As with a focus group, you can ask them to sign an NDA beforehand too.

Interviews resolve the disadvantages of B2B focus groups:

  • Whether the interviews last 15, 30, or 60 minutes, it’s still a better use of senior decision-makers’ time than a focus group featuring several other respondents
  • There are no geographical restrictions, so you can recruit respondents from anywhere
  • You don’t need to find a set time that multiple respondents can each do
  • Respondents don’t need to worry about sharing sensitive information in front of competitors and they can request anonymity if needed too

Moreover, there are practical advantages to using interviews instead of focus groups in B2B research. 

They tend to be more effective at meeting your research objectives because interviewers can:

  • Get more detailed information from each respondent
  • Build a stronger relationship with the respondent, who may in turn be more willing to share extra or more valuable information
  • Have more flexibility around the types of questions they ask

Regarding the latter, from experience, we know that B2B executives can’t always describe precisely why they make certain decisions. Emotions affect B2B buying behavior and decision-makers won’t know how subconscious thought processes influence their choices.

In a focus group, it’s very challenging to explore this properly for several respondents at a time. But in a one-to-one interview, there’s scope to dig deeper using projective techniques.

These include giving respondents hypothetical scenarios, role-play exercises, image-sorting tasks, and a range of inversion, analogy, or personification questions where relevant.

Lastly, you save costs on focus group venue hire and sustenance fees – plus, you may also be able to pay relatively lower incentives given that the interview times are shorter.

#2 Consider private online communities to explore complex topics

Depending on your research goals, a private online community may work better than an online focus group.

Typically, an online community features a group of participants typing answers to written questions over a week or so. Questions are staggered to go live on specific days, building on the previous day’s topics.

Usually, the idea is to encourage engagement between respondents, such as commenting on each others’ answers. 

But there’s another option, better suited to B2B research, where you make everyone’s answers private. This can solve the problem of decision-makers not wanting to share sensitive information in front of potential competitors in their sector.

The private online community format also solves other problems of research focus groups: 

  • No matter where they are in the world, respondents can write answers to your questions at a convenient time for them. If that’s during your nighttime, you can read and reply to their responses the next day
  • This means that geography and time zone barriers aren’t a factor. It can be a cheaper way of doing international B2B market research since you don’t necessarily need to have multiple interviewers to cover interviews across several countries
  • Lasting several days, they’re longer than focus groups. But because they only need to spend 10-15 minutes a day typing answers, the longer format doesn’t necessarily mean you’re asking them to give up more time compared to a two-hour focus group

The longer format means that private online communities can be useful for detail-heavy or complex discussions with respondents. If there’s a lot of information to factor in, you can introduce a new topic once per day, rather than once every few minutes.

However, where feasible, one-to-one interviews are more likely to give you richer insights overall. Conversations in online communities aren’t live, so it’s hard to probe respondents’ answers or ask follow-up questions.

Other potential drawbacks include not seeing the respondents and picking up on behavioral or non-verbal cues, as well as some disengagement by not having a spoken conversation.

 

#3 Run mobile diary studies to get observational insights in context

A more visual and on-the-go alternative to an online community is a mobile diary study. These also typically run for a week and introduce new questions to answer each day.

With respondents using their smartphones, the format is designed for only brief text answers but also more multimedia replies, by asking them to take photos, voice memos, and videos. 

The latter can provide some ethnographic insight, a chance to see respondents in context. For example, you could ask respondents to record their engagement with B2B marcomms, wherever they are when seeing them for the first time.

With this format, you witness their live reactions and behavior. With other market research methods including focus groups, you’re relying on their ability to accurately recall their reactions, or describe their behavior.

Both online communities and mobile diaries are examples of longitudinal studies. You can build up a more reliable long-term view of respondents’ engagement with a topic, rather than how they respond to it in a one-off focus group or interview.

Crucially – interviews, online communities, and mobile diaries are much more convenient for senior B2B decision-makers. By making the research more convenient, it’s easier to recruit respondents and get the quality insights you need from them.

Summary

Limitations of the focus group format

They can be subject to: ‘groupthink’ – respondents choosing to agree with each other in search of conformity; format flaws – quieter participants struggle to express their views; moderator bias – they may try to sugarcoat criticism or harsh truths from respondents.

Challenges of in-person focus groups in B2B research

A focus group example that works well is one involving consumers. Benefits include: watching consumers evaluate ideas as a group, replicating the different conversations people have at home or with friends; seeing consumers’ reactions firsthand; getting the chance to add follow-up questions on the fly, especially in a client participant focus group.

In contrast: senior B2B decision-makers don’t have time for focus groups; the right people to invite are spread out geographically; it’s difficult to schedule a time they can all do; they won’t share sensitive info in front of competitors; it’s not an efficient way to get rich insights.

In-person focus groups vs online focus groups

Online focus groups are a slightly better option than face-to-face ones, but key problems remain that affect the quality of the results.

It’s still difficult to schedule an online session for a time when everyone can make it; online, it can be harder for moderators to keep engaged groups of people they don’t know; it’s also harder to see several people on screen at once and pick up on their non-verbal cues; ultimately, senior decision-makers are unlikely to give you two hours of their time.

Best practices for finding alternatives to B2B focus groups

We recommend that you: use one-to-one interviews instead for deeper insights; consider private online communities to explore complex topics; run mobile diary studies to get observational insights in context.

Chris Wells
Share:

Got a B2B market research project
you’d like to discuss?

Contact us

More from the blog

A guide to customer satisfaction research in B2B, including asking the right questions

How to

September 29, 2023

A guide to customer satisfaction research in B2B, including asking the right questions

Why tracking customer satisfaction matters in B2B industries and how to include the right questions in research projects.

How to do competitive intelligence research in B2B

How to

September 14, 2023

How to do competitive intelligence research in B2B

We explore the types of intel available about your competitors, plus how to collect and analyze it efficiently.

How to do product concept testing in B2B

How to

September 1, 2023

How to do product concept testing in B2B

We discuss the steps involved in B2B product concept testing/validation research projects including our best practices.