The difference between taste tests and focus groups

The biggest difference between a taste test and a focus group is that for taste tests, you’re typically doing it alone, just tasting a product (or products) and answering a bunch of (usually multiple choice) questions about the product(s), and it’s a 20- to 30-minute commitment.

For focus groups, you are with a group of people and you are sharing your opinion about a product or a topic—focus groups don’t have to involve food at all. If the topic does happen to be food-related, you may or may not be asked to taste it during the meeting—or you may be asked to taste it, or shop for it, before the meeting. Focus groups are led; you interact by discussion with a moderator, and often times, with the other participants; and they usually pay more because it’s typically a 1- to 2.5-hour commitment.

A typical taste test

Here is the typical sequence of events for the taste tests I’ve participated in:

After logging in to a device, like an iPad, on which to provide your responses, you are presented with a small variety of products from one brand, or competing brands; for example:

You are usually asked to provide your opinion on a couple of things (e.g., appearance and aroma) before you taste the product:

Then you’re asked to taste the product and provide your opinion on things like the texture, mouthfeel, overall taste, saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, moistness, spiciness, likelihood to purchase, likelihood to recommend, etc.

And, then, before receiving the next sample, you’re asked to “clear your palate” (typically for 30 seconds) by eating a Saltine cracker and taking a sip of bottled water.

A typical focus group

To qualify for the focus group, you’re asked to share your opinion about one thing or another. Once chosen, you’re asked to do some kind of activity before the meeting, at which a moderator follows up on your answers or how the activity went. The follow-up can be in the form of asking for more details about an opinion expressed or an activity you did or asking you new questions about your opinion or activity.

With that said, I’ve been involved with three very different kinds of focus groups:

  1. For one, at the meeting, we tasted a variety of French fries, prepared in different ways (e.g., deep-fried, pan-fried, crinkly cut, plain, some with a red seasoning on them), and we were asked about the look, the taste, likelihood of buying, and where you’d expect to be served each of the varieties of fries. This one lasted 1.5 hours, and I was compensated with $100 in cash.

  2. For another, before the meeting I was asked to take a picture of mozzarella cheese that was currently in our refrigerator and then go to the grocery store I usually shop in and take a photo of one that I typically buy there. This one lasted 2.5 hours, and I was compensated with a $75 Amazon gift card. I wrote a separate blog entry about this one if you’re interested in more details.

  3. And for yet another, we were divided into “Team Publix” and “Team Wegmans” and followed a 3-phase “jury method” of sharing why each of us was so passionate about “our” store. The 3 phases involved: 1) devising opening statements with 5 supporting points, 2) rebutting the other team’s opening statements and supporting points, and then 3) providing a closing statement with 5 final points. This one lasted 2 hours, and I was compensated with a $150 Amazon gift card. I wrote a separate blog entry about this one if you’re interested in more details.

Become a taste tester or a focus group participant

I participate through L&E Research’s L&E Opinion and through North Carolina State University’s Sensory Service Center.

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