Focus on the Fan: Focus Groups in Sports Marketing Research

There is a wealth of information to be found about focus groups. Although other types of research are more applicable in many situations, focus groups are still what most people think of first regarding qualitative research. In other words, it is often considered to be the quintessential type of qual study. Specific information and insights on focus groups as they relate to sports marketing research are less easy to find than information about them as a whole. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of focus groups an how each one relates to this specific application. Some of these strengths and weaknesses are based on concepts found in Edward F. McQuarrie’s book The Market Research Toolbox, which I highly recommend to any marketing professional.

Strengths

  • Get at the lowest common denominator of customers
    • If your focus group consists of your existing fans, you can gain insights into what they all have in common that makes them a fan. On the other hand, if your focus group consists of non-fans, insights into what they have in common can point you in a good direction to change that. The unification dynamic described by McQuarrie comes into play here within the focus group setting.

  • Differentiate the sub-groups of certain customers
    • Focus groups can also provide you with an insight as to what different kinds of segmentation you can use to view your target audience, whether it is existing fans, non-fans, or a sample taken from your overall market. The polarization dynamic is helpful here and can help you determine how to market to different segments of your market. 

  • Third-party effect via professional moderator
    • Unlike some other qualitative research methods, focus groups usually utilize an independent moderator to direct the focus group, rather than a representative from the brand, or in this case, the team. This can cause the participants to be more open, allowing you to receive feedback from this type of study that respondents might have been unwilling to voice directly to the team. Whether it’s a criticism or praise regarding team management, advertisements, concessions, or in-game entertainment, you’ll receive much more candid responses than you otherwise might have.

Weaknesses

  • Small, non-random samples
    • Because focus groups typically consist of 6-10 people, the group of respondents will most likely not be completely representative of the whole audience you are trying to get insights on. You can still gain great insights from them, but it is something to keep in mind. You can combat this by doing several focus groups and merging your results.

  • Downsides of ‘group synergy’
    • There are some aspects of group synergy in focus groups that are often seen to undermine the possibility of acquiring an accurate view of the group’s views. Some examples include one dominant personality monopolizing the dialogue, a shy respondent not contributing, and bandwagon opinions that undermine individual viewpoints. As a sports team utilizing a focus group to gain insights into your market or a market segment, you have to keep these in mind and account for them, choosing a moderator with the skill to manage these possible issues. On the flip side, because of the qualities inherent in team fandom, these types of dynamics may provide useful insights into the herd-like dynamic of the fanbase. 

  • Limited air time per participant
    • Because of the group dynamic and time constraints necessary to maintain engagement, you may not get as much input from each individual participant as you might want. This downside can be countered by not limiting yourself to only one kind of study. Complement your focus group study with a quantitative study or a more in-depth qual study to maximize your insights. 

Make sure you weigh the pros and cons of conducting a focus group by taking into account the specific situation for which you are trying to gain insights. Every kind of research study has advantages and limitations. Whether focus groups will be useful to you is subjective, but I believe that they can be very insightful for sports marketing research in particular because of the group dynamic and its potential to mimic a fanbase’s dynamic. 

If you are new to focus groups, check out this article by SurveyMonkey on using them in market research.

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