In-Depth Interviews vs. Focus Groups

In the marketing research community, focus groups have long been the driving force behind qualitative data collection. Another method that many use are in-depth interviews (IDIs), where one interviewer interacts with one respondent at a time. What are the key differences between the two methodologies?

Focus groups remain a leading means of gaining in-depth opinions and feedback on a broad range of topics, and traditional uses have been testing advertising/marketing, marketing positions, new concepts and product usability research. A key benefit of focus groups has always been the brainstorming format, where several opinions are shared and gathered simultaneously and the interaction between participants serves to facilitate the information gathering process. The other key benefit is the ability to offer visual and tactile stimulations to respondents.

Typically conducted in-person at a research facility, one consumer group per city can cost $5,000 and business groups as much as $7,500 depending upon respondent level and recruitment difficulty. From a cost/benefit standpoint, many marketing research buyers are beginning to consider the alternatives. One trend that is gaining limited momentum is telephone and Internet group conferencing, where respondents dial-in remotely and interact. The key benefit of this approach is the cost savings coming from an easier recruit and a lack of travel costs (sponsors and moderator). While convenient, much of the interactive component is limited, or at least different from traditional focus groups.

IDIs are similar to focus groups in that instead of following a specified questionnaire, they are more of a guided discussion. While they can be done in-person, they are typically conducted over the telephone by a senior level interviewer who is capable of engaging respondents interactively. Due to the structure of these interviews and level of respondents typically contacted, interviewer experience is particularly important and the skill set required is closer to that of a moderator than a typical telephone interviewer.

The interviewer needs to facilitate:

  • Getting the respondent to agree to take the survey. This is particularly important if you have a small sample base, since you only get one live contact chance per respondent.

  • Keeping them on the phone. It is also important that the interviewer be able to engage the respondent on many levels and be able to think on their feet in order to keep the respondent interested enough to complete the survey. This ensures higher response rates, greater representation and will prevent cost overruns.

  • Collecting quality information. The two steps above are in vain if quality, usable information is not collected during the interview. Keep in mind that the information still needs to be synthesized and reported on, so make sure the reporting style is to your liking ahead of time.

While in-depth interviews are particularly well suited for business-to-business surveys, they can also work great for consumer customer satisfaction, retention, product development, concept testing and many other types of projects. In what ways do IDIs favorably stack up to focus groups?

They are:

  • Timely. Because there is no need to book a facility and recruit respondents to attend, more IDIs can often be executed and reported on over a shorter period of time.

  • Flexible. Agreement to participate in IDIs at a later date can be sought ahead of time and packages can be emailed/mailed to a geographically dispersed group of participants before the interview.�The packages can include tactile and visual stimuli. In-depth interviews are great when potential respondents are not aggregated around convenient or centralized focus group facilities.

  • Cost effective. IDI costs can run from half as costly to equally costly per respondent, depending upon program design.

  • Participation. It is often much easier to get high-level respondents, such as doctors or C-level executives, to participate in IDIs over focus groups, since they require less of the respondent's time and can be worked into busy schedules.

  • Feedback detail. The level of detailed feedback from individual respondent is often greater than with focus group respondents.

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