Focus Groups: A Help or a Waste of Time?

by Thomas L. Greenbaum


With pharmaceutical industry competition much more intense now, manufacturers who are launching new products are looking for more effective ways to market drugs to a wider audience. It is not unusual to turn on the television or to open a consumer magazine and see advertisements for prescription medications that, in the past, were advertised and promoted only to the medical community.

This new approach to marketing prescription medications provides a new challenge to drug manufacturers. They now must compete with mainstream consumer products for the "share-of-mind" with their target audiences. Simultaneously, they must avoid alienating physicians, who will write the prescriptions for these advertised drugs.

As a result of these new marketing challenges, most pharmaceutical companies now conduct a greater amount of research among consumer and physician. This research is intended to provide drug manufacturers with consumers' and physicians' opinions about product concepts, advertising and promotional ideas, packaging, and point-of-sale materials, among other things. Over the past five years, there has been an increasing trend among pharmaceutical companies to utilize focus group research as the primary research vehicle of choice when marketing OTC or prescription products.

Some pharmaceutical organizations have found focus groups extremely helpful in planning and implementing the marketing of their products. Others, however, have been disappointed with focus groups. This article will explore how marketing professionals can maximize the benefits that focus groups can provide.

Why Use Focus Groups?

One of the most common phrases marketing and research professionals use regarding their products is "let's do some groups," as if focus group research will provide all the answers. It is important to determine when focus groups are the correct approach and when they are not.

There are many different situations in which a focus group is the best way to gather information about a particular product or service. The following are some of the most common objectives in the pharmaceutical industry:

Gaining Physician Insight. Perhaps the most common use of focus groups is to expose new products to physicians and obtain their feedback. 'New product" refers to a completely new drug, a new way to administer an existing medication (i.e., transdermal, intranasal, sublingual), or a new capability for a medication, such as extended duration, quicker onset of action, or reduced side effects. Focus groups are an excellent way to obtain data regarding the importance of the new products, how they will fit into the physicians' treatment protocol, and what types of users will find the formulation most appropriate.

Gathering Packaging Data. Many OTC medications rely heavily on the recommendations of physicians for their success. When a new package is being developed, it is often desirable to expose the graphics and package copy to both physicians and end users (in different sessions) to determine if all parties understand the nature of the product based on the packaging. Many OTC medications are not supported by advertising, therefore, the package becomes an increasingly important element of the marketing mix. If focus groups directed at package copy are conducted correctly, they can be very effective in providing useful data to the marketing organization as the package is developed.

Developing Positioning. A common use of the focus group is to seek input from physicians or end-user retail customers that will help develop the best positioning for a product or service. For example, should a new pain killer be positioned based on the speed of action, the ability of the product to deal with severe pain, the duration of action, or the absence of gastrointestinal effects? The appropriate use of focus groups can provide excellent insights to these questions.

Evaluating Advertising and Merchandising Materials. Focus groups are also an excellent vehicle for determining if the target customer (physician and/or retail consumer) relates well to the advertising or merchandising materials aimed at them. By exposing these materials to focus group participants, one can determine whether the content is easily understood, believable, and unique compared with what other companies say about their products.

Gathering Data on Attitudes. Another popular use of focus groups is to help organizations see how effectively they are servicing their customers. Currently, there is great emphasis on relationship marketing to encourage loyalty among customers to the manufacturer. Manufacturers can then better target programs to these customers. To assist in this, focus groups are often used to gather input relative to how satisfied customers are with the service they receive from a manufacturer. This may include physicians and the feelings they have toward the drug representatives, the samples provided, and the responsiveness to questions. It could also involve an end user and the service they get when they call a company for information or when they order their prescription drugs.

Using Focus Groups Inefficiently

Pharmaceutical marketers can use focus groups incorrectly by doing the following:

Projecting Sales. An integral part of any program for a new or revitalized product is projecting sales of the product. Focus groups are not effective for developing information for this type of projection because of the small size of the sample, the "nonprojectability" of the participant group, and the qualitative nature of the research. There are several quantitative methodologies that are more appropriate for this.

Determining Advertising Recall or Persuasiveness. Generally, a new product introduction is accompanied by an aggressive media schedule (print or broadcast); marketing organizations are interested, of course, in knowing the effect advertising has on the target audience. Qualitative research can be very useful in evaluating reactions of target customers to advertising, especially in terms of believability, understanding of key copy points, and relevance of visuals. This technique, however, cannot determine levels of related recall or the degree to which the advertising will persuade customers "to buy."

Generating New Product or Advertising Ideas. In the quest for effective new ways to advertise pharmaceuticals, some organizations will use focus groups as an implementation vehicle. Unfortunately, participants in focus groups (whether for pharmaceuticals or other products) do not generally come up with new ideas that can be used by the manufacturer. Although some methodologies can be effective, focus groups are not the optimal way to accomplish this. As a general rule, one should think of focus groups as a way to see how people react to ideas. In this arena, they can be very helpful. However, to ask participants to create new concepts is well beyond the reasonable expectation of the focus group methodology.

Pricing Insight. Customarily, focus group moderators are asked by pharmaceutical clients to help determine the best price for a new product. Although this methodology can help determine a general range of acceptable pricing, it is by no means an effective research vehicle to determine appropriate product price. For example, a focus group cannot determine whether the optimal price should be, say, $12.50 or $14.99. It can, however, determine if a price of more than $20 will completely turn off the target audience, or if a very low price (i.e., $3.99) will carry a perception that the product is not particularly effective.

Maximizing Data From Focus Groups

Focus group research is a completely unregulated industry; there are no special credentials needed to become a focus group moderator. As a result, the industry is filled with part-time personnel who are between jobs, or others who have not been successful in other careers and who are seeking to become their own boss by starting a research company. The net effect is that there is great variance in the overall quality of research companies. Whether a research company is "good" or "not good," pharmaceutical manufacturers can ensure a successful focus group by doing the following:

Selecting the Right Moderator. This is by far the most important element for effective focus group research. A professional moderator understands the needs of the client organization, is experienced enough to suggest the best way to conduct research that provides answers, has resources to handle the administrative aspects of the project (i.e., recruiting, facility selection, etc.), can moderate effectively (i.e., seek input from all, not invoke his or her own biases, avoid having a leader in the group, etc.), and can interpret results in a way that will provide solutions to the issues addressed.

To find an effective moderator, the company should thoroughly research candidates and ensure that they have experience working in the pharmaceutical industry, a track record of success with other clients, and good "chemistry" when communicating with clients. The client/moderator relationship should be a very close working association, and both parties in the process should be able to work together well.

Planning the Research. One common reason why clients are dissatisfied with the output of qualitative research is that insufficient time was taken to adequately plan the project. This involves at least the following:

  1. A clearly written statement of why the research is being done; everyone involved should understand goals and objectives.

  2. Appropriate screening criteria for participants, and providing adequate time to find the correct participants. Too often, recruiting specifications are compromised because of lack of time. For example, it might not be adequate to just have orthopedists in a group. The ideal session should include physicians that are in private practice, see "X" number of patients per week and prescribe a specific drug "Y" number of times per month to qualify as participants for this given focus group project.

    This type of person might be difficult to find; therefore, adequate time should be provided for effective recruiting. Creation of a discussion guide for the groups, reflecting input from key people at the client organization, is also essential. This guide is one of the most important parts of the entire focus group process and must be carefully prepared if the discussions are to be useful.

  3. Client personnel should be very involved in the focus group process. Even with the most experienced moderator, the focus group process will be more effective if the client personnel stay in the mix. It is important that key client personnel partake in developing objectives and specifications for those in the sessions.

Having Client Personnel Attend. The focus group process will also be more effective if client personnel take ownership of the process and stay involved. Client personnel should attend the groups to hear the comments of the participants live. Listening to (or watching) tapes is not nearly as effective as being there while the groups are in session.

Trusting the Moderator. Once the right moderator has been hired, it is vital to follow his or her advice on the best way to conduct the research. Too often, a client organization tries to legislate focus group techniques to the moderator. Moderating focus groups is a very special skill, and each person who does this for a living has developed his or her own approach. For this reason, once the moderator has been selected, it is important to let him or her prove their value.

Briefing the Moderator. The moderator should be viewed as a partner in the research process and should not be subjected to "hidden agendas" relative to the focus group project. The client organization should work with the moderator to ensure that this person understands what the client would like to accomplish with the research. In addition, it should provide the moderator with necessary product information. To this end, the moderator need not be an expert in the particular product area being researched, but must know enough to ask the right questions and listen for nuances so that the discussion can be steered in the right direction.


Focus groups can be an extremely effective technique for pharmaceutical manufacturers seeking to learn more about their products and services, whether these drugs are in concept stage, phase I, II, or III trials, or are mature products already being marketed. The key is to ensure that the focus group methodology is the most appropriate way to research the topic, and that appropriate steps are taken to guarantee that the study is conducted in an effective manner.


Thomas L. Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus

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