Survey Research vs. Focus Groups

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In my work with clients I’m often asked, “Which is better? Surveys or focus groups?”
Data-gathering through surveys and focus groups is an important component of brand positioning. It’s also a smart, strategic effort to learn about prospective students’ decision making process and their perceptions of your institution.

Let’s take a look at surveys and focus groups.

Survey Research:

  • Can be more cost effective, collecting the most data possible, at a fraction of the price of numerous focus groups
  • Provides more quantifiable and statistically significant data which can be cross cut to account for various segment groups (based on demographics, program of interest, GPA, etc.)
  • Allow for more candid responses without the influence of others’ opinions
  • Helps establish better benchmarks and the ability to track changes in responses over time, which can give you further insights into overall marketing and recruitment strategies and tactics

Focus groups: 

  • Tend to take place with a much smaller sample size in an interactive group setting
  • Are often too small to draw definitive conclusions, and data can be harder to analyze
  • Can be a great way to encourage participants to share ideas and express opinions and attitudes
  • Can be an effective way to facilitate open discussions and allow members of your campus community to express themselves deeper that a less-personal survey
  • Can be more costly and time consuming, in comparison to a survey. But if you have deep or complex issues you want to understand better before developing targeted, meaningful questions to include on your survey, or, if you have a number of theories which you would like to test for relevance, focus groups are a great tool in providing clarity and structure to the next steps of your research 

Keep in mind, however, that without the anonymity of a survey, it can be challenging for some people to speak freely and express their opinions.

So, which is better?
  • If you are simply looking to generate ideas or gather feedback about what prospective students (and potentially other audiences) think about a creative concept, or your programs, or academic offerings, then focus groups may be more helpful
  • But, when it comes to collecting consistent, reliable and accurate data, the advantages of survey research are unbeatable
  • Survey research provides a larger sample, with responses that are more honest and open, providing data that is more concrete and easier to analyze
  • Focus groups certainly have some advantages, but surveys can offer significantly more meaningful data

In my experience, the best strategy is to use a combination of the two approaches for the best results:

Conduct focus groups first to inform and refine the questions which will ultimately be asked in a quantitative survey (or conversely – focus groups can be used following a quantitative survey to dive deeper into certain issues or to further refine concepts introduced/tested in a survey). Allow focus groups and surveys to affirm and enhance one another.

In other words…measure twice, cut once.

Ultimately, reliability is a key factor in strategic decision-making. With either method of research, we want to make sure that the information collected is going to provide accurate and reliable information in order to make informed strategic decisions and move forward with confidence. When implemented correctly, a little market research can go a long way in improving your overall marketing and recruitment efforts and generate a considerable return on investment (ROI) for your institution.

Are you contemplating testing a creative concept or gathering information regarding your current image in the marketplace? Contact us. We’d love to talk.