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A Focus on Focus Groups: 7 Best Practices

In a marketing age becoming increasingly focused on digital engagement, face-to-face interactions seem so…well, old school.  But, when it comes to gathering market and customer insights, nothing can replace the human component of culling qualitative data right from the source – your target audience.  That’s where the focus group comes in.  Giving a sample of decision-makers a literal ‘seat at the table’ to voice their candid opinions, share personal experiences and provide directional perspective is invaluable to the marketing mix.  Whether you’re revamping your brand, testing a campaign concept, launching a new product or exploring a future trend, focus groups allow you to validate your ideas before fully investing in a go-to-market strategy.

Having facilitated multiple focus groups over the span of my Outlook career, here are a few pointers I’ve learned along the way that will help in getting the most mileage from your investment:

  1. Keep it cozy – an ideal focus group size should be no less than six, and no more than 12, people to be productive. Using more than a  dozen participants, the group becomes unwieldy and dilutes the intimacy of a conversation, where all experts have a voice and are able to speak their minds.  Be sure to also keep your own company or agency attendees to a minimum – preferably no more than 2 or 3 in the room – to avoid intimidating the participants.  If you have more colleagues eager to attend, seat them in private room behind a mirrored glass pane. This way, they can observe without being seen by the focus group.
  2. Mix it up – don’t be afraid to combine different titles or types of organizations represented by the participants into a single group. Diversity adds color and depth to the conversation and allows you to tease out the subtle nuances among each audience target based on their unique pain points, varied viewpoints and individual decision-making roles.  You’ll be able to glean more granular input – and ultimately tailor your marketing messages and activities to their specific needs.
  3. Don’t overstuff your agenda – as tempting as it may be to want to cram as much as you can into a one- or two-hour focus group meeting, it’s better to dive deep than to skim the surface. Having fewer topics allows you the flexibility to probe tangents that may arise, clarify points, ask members to share anecdotes and engage in a healthy discussion without feeling rushed.  It typically takes at least 15 minutes for the group to loosen up and feel comfortable with each other and the moderator before openly expressing their views.  So, it’s not surprising that the most precious ‘pearls’ tend to surface toward the latter part of the session.
  4. Encourage exchange –Another hidden source of ‘pearls’ is not always in the form of Q&A between the facilitator and participants, but between the focus group participants themselves. I’ve found that by sitting back and listening to a spontaneous exchange between members can be a treasure trove.  In their more organic sharing of experiences, building on each other’s statements or even respectively disagreeing, you can hear the truth between the lines, more so than when one is carefully formulating a response to a moderator’s direct question.
  5. Coax the shy guy – don’t mistake silence for lack of substance. There will always be the token know-it-all who dominates the discussion and tends to intimidate others.  Remember, however, it’s the moderator’s responsibility to control the group and make sure every participant’s voice be heard.  I purposely call on the quiet one(s) by name to balance the inputs.  Once given a stage, they feel less inhibited and often have the most profound comments.  So, work the room…walk around…query specific individuals…ask “off script” questions to dig deeper…and encourage maximum participation.
  6. Remember the obvious – free food, directions to the bathroom and ensuring focus group participants know how to collect their honoraria are vital points to cover upfront. For moderators, don’t underestimate the value of BIG PRINT on name cards so that they can be easily read – and experts called upon by name – during the discussion.  Also, be sure to collect the name cards at the end, because those who showed up may not exactly match the pre-registered attendee list.  Also, take advantage of every opportunity to record the session.  Videotaping is preferable, so you can go back to view the attendees later to confirm who said what or to capture their reactions visually if graphic elements were part of the presentation.
  7. Share up, down and sideways – as you summarize the highlights of your focus group output, think beyond the specific initiative for which this research was commissioned. Are there other teams inside or even outside of your organization who would find value in this research?  Depending on the nature of your focus group, there may be insights that could be woven into thought leadership content or certain tidbits shared with business partners who have common goals.  You’ll of course want to keep the identities of the participants confidential, but the key is to leverage the outcome in ways that go beyond the expected to optimize the findings with other interested parties.

Focusing on getting the biggest bang from your focus groups will help ensure that you gain the best value from your marketing research, your future programs and for all involved.

What tips, lessons learned or stories do you have from your own focus group experiences? We’d love to hear them! Share them with us on Twitter @OutlookMktg, LinkedIn or Facebook.

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Author: Kristin R. Fayer, Senior Vice President, Outlook Marketing Services

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