Flash back to the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares when seeing “faces in boxes” on your TV screen was a novelty. Our workdays are now dominated by Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Teams and other online platforms that produce digital meetings on demand. Focus groups are no exception to today’s virtual event arena.
Unlike traditional focus groups where you read the room, tune into social cues and captivate your audience, replicating this experience online is tricky. Hosting dynamics are different, but the goal is the same: to gather unbiased, real-world customer and industry intelligence that drive better business outcomes.
Why Do Them?
There are many reasons to conduct focus groups as part of your customer marketing strategy. Your objectives may be to:
- Understand your customers’ roles, decision-making triggers and purchasing behaviors to sharpen your audience targeting
- Vet a new solution or service to validate its market feasibility, differentiation and adoption potential
- Assess audience receptivity to a new go-to-market campaign, brand messaging or corporate identity
- Glean competitive intelligence to inform your sales strategies, product roadmap, event participation and marketing programs
- Uncover industry trends and drivers that can reveal new markets, advance your leadership stance and accelerate your buyer’s journey
5 Tips to Get ‘Em Talking
Giving a sampling of decision-makers a “seat at the table” to voice their opinions and share experiences is invaluable. But how do you get them to engage and open up, whether the session is conducted virtually or in person? Based on Outlook’s experience facilitating focus groups for more than two decades, here are a five best practices:
- Prep participants in advance. Provide background to focus group members prior to hosting the session. Make sure that they have instructions on how to link to the virtual platform and are comfortable using the features. Send a technology tip/troubleshooting sheet, a consent form if needed and a summary of the focus group objectives and questions. They’ll feel more prepared to join the conversation if they’ve had time to gather their thoughts before the meeting.
- Less is more. Virtual group discussions tend to have a slower rhythm and a shorter attention span than face-to-face meetings. Limit your session to an hour, keep your agenda brief and aim for quality over quantity. Prepare a facilitation guide with a defined objective and five to seven solid questions that probe the specific insights you’re seeking. Make time to go “off script” and dig deeper. Allow for group interaction if a member wants to comment or build on another’s perspective. The facilitator and participants should feel relaxed, not rushed. This principle holds true even for focus group sessions that meet in person, as you’ll want to set a pace the allows for plenty of healthy exchange.
- Set the ground rules. An ideal virtual focus group size should be no less than four, and no more than eight, people to be productive. When everyone is on the screen together, cross-talk can be a challenge. As a moderator, spell out the rules of engagement upfront. Make sure that each participant is clearly identified by roll call and names are displayed on the screen. Remind the group that only one member speaks at a time, so the others can hear and respond. Encourage members to keep their video on and to mute themselves if they’re not speaking. Seeing faces with names lends to a much more dynamic and personal conversation.
- Make it interactive. Keep participants engaged by inserting multimedia items such as polling questions, videos and images when appropriate. A clever cartoon, funny picture or famous movie clip keeps folks loosened up and drives home your point. To encourage full participation, ask members to use online platform features such as “raise hand” and “chat” functions. Coax the shy guy by saying “for those who haven’t spoken up a lot, what do you think?” or conduct a round-robin. Keep the conversation flowing, insert gentle nudges and remind participants that you value everyone’s input. Again, these same rules apply to in-person focus groups.
- Don’t sell. Remember: this is a conversation, not a presentation. You’re not trying to sell, but to gather insights and honest feedback. A common complaint we hear is that companies inappropriately turn a “focus group” session into a sales platform or a virtual product demo. When participants feel they’ve been misled, they quickly tune out. Once the trust is lost, they’re unlikely to sign up for future focus groups sponsored by the same vendor. That’s why involving an experienced, objective third party keeps your focus group credible…and your attendees coming back for more.
Meeting Adjourned…Now What?
Whether conducted online or in person, what comes next after the focus group ends is vital. Recording your focus group lets you review it later, pass it along to a colleague who couldn’t attend and transcribe it. The key is to glean the hidden gems, tie them back to your original objectives and then make this insight actionable.
For example, maybe your focus group shared that your competition was opening offices overseas or targeting a new demographic. How will you amend your marketing strategy to counter these threats? Perhaps you were told that your company’s updated value proposition was too lofty or unconvincing. This suggests a need to build your evidence and conduct further validation to make it hit home. Maybe your focus group members were intrigued by your potential new product offering. Can you invite them to participate in a pilot study to test the concept before fully launching it? These are just a few examples of how to turn feedback into fuel to drive your customer marketing strategy.
We Can Help
Let Outlook Marketing help you strategize, facilitate and analyze the outcomes of your next focus group. We can take your market research and customer intelligence to the next level by transforming meaningful insights into powerful action.
Author: Kristin Fayer, Senior Vice President, Outlook Marketing