Effective Focus Groups

Focus Groups are often seen as a marketing research requirement for everything from new product launches, to political campaigns, to ad testing.  Their value is seen as indispensable.  Yet in spite of how often they are used, products fail all the time, products that passed through focus groups with flying colors.  So why does this happen?  And what can be done to increase the success of focus groups?

It is important to understand that focus groups have weaknesses.  One of the biggest inherent weaknesses of focus groups is the environment itself.  People are thrown together with a bunch of strangers and asked to make snap judgments about a product or service they are typically unfamiliar with.  As likeable as the moderator may be, that person is typically a stranger as well, and expressing your heart-felt honest opinions to a stranger isn’t something most of us do very well.

In the actual marketplace the correlation between stated intent and actual behavior isn’t as high as one may think.  Ask anyone if they would like a telemarketer to call them or for someone to come knocking on their door trying to sell something and they will tell you “no”.  Yet some of these same people who say “no” end up buying.  We always intend to eat better and exercise more, but for most of us our behavior doesn’t reflect that intention.   People are often at odds with themselves, we don’t know what we want.  Yet the goal of most focus groups is to get definitive answers, and to do so in an environment that doesn’t reflect reality.

So how are these weaknesses overcome?  For the most part, they can’t be entirely overcome.  However, focus groups still have value, and can still be a useful component of the marketing research process when done correctly.

First, a successful focus group needs to start by being set up properly.  The participants should correctly fit the demographic.  They should be correctly informed of the purpose, expectations, and how long the focus group will last (typically 60 to 90 minutes).  Additionally the number of participants should be ideal for the subject, usually six to eight.

The focus group should never start with a hard intro to the subject.  Participants need to get to know each other a little and the moderator should appear friendly, relaxed and social (a light refreshment at the start always helps).  The moderator should explain everything clearly and ask for “brutal honesty.”  This can help break down the barrier some participants may have of not wanting to offend.

The role of the moderator is to facilitate the discussion and listen.  The hallmark of a good focus group is respondents talking and interacting with each other in ways that reveal additional information.  The moderator should never enter into a debate about the subject or explain why something isn’t possible.  The focus group moderator should also ensure even participation.  If one or two individuals are dominating the conversation, the moderator should call on others for their opinion.

The moderator should have five or six specific questions to ask or topics to cover and should let the participants know this.  This can help bring the discussion into focus if it gets off track and help guide the focus group.  These primary questions can be augmented by additional questions to promote discussion.  A few good universal questions that can be used to open up areas of discussion are:

1. If you were in charge, what kind of changes would you make?

2. What would it take for this [product, service, ad, concept, idea] to get a gold star? Or, if this [product, service, etc.] received an award, what would it be for?

3. If you were the moderator, what would be the next question you would ask the group?

4. What would you tell a best friend or family member about this [product, service, etc.]?

5. Assume this [product, service, etc.] could talk, what would it say about itself?

6. If you could only change one thing about this [product, service, etc.] what would you change, and what’s the main reason that one thing needs changing?

7. After respondents have graded an item, and they have given it something less than an A, ask, “what would it take for this product to get an A?”

8. When respondents clearly don’t like something and they are making a lot of very negative statements, shift the group’s attention to its positive aspects by asking, Can you tell me five positive things about this [product, service, etc.], no matter how small that positive thing is?

9. If you were responsible for selling 1,000 units of this product, what key point would you stress in the ad campaign?

10. What do you need to know about this [product, service, etc.] in order to accept or reject it?

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