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How to Get the Most Out of a Focus Group
How to Get the Most Out of a Focus Group
Make your research more reliable than a Magic 8 Ball

Remember Magic 8 Balls? Born in the 1950s, they were still popular in the ‘90s heyday of Hit Clips, slap bracelets, and getting dysentery on the Oregon Trail. (What can I say? My generation has good taste.)

The first time I used one, I thought it was cool. I remember watching with bated breath as the blue triangle emerged from the murky depths and supposedly revealed my future. But I quickly lost interest. The Magic 8 Ball’s predictions never came true. I was just asking questions into thin air, not getting useful information.

Unfortunately, a lot of focus groups are like Magic 8 Balls. Brands expect them to reveal the future, but they might as well be asking questions into thin air.

Done well, a focus group can strengthen your relationship with customers. It can teach you about their ever-changing preferences and give them a seat at the table as you shape your product.

But if you’re not asking the right questions or not asking them in the right way, you might as well be asking, “Will our brand succeed next year?” while shaking a Magic 8 Ball. Here’s how to get the most out of your focus groups:

1. Set a clear objective.

If you don’t know the question, you can’t find the answer. Simple as that.

Your research objective should be specific and narrow. “We want to know how people feel about our company” is too broad. Think of an objective as having three parts: audience, information, and application. Ask yourself: 1) Whose opinion do I want? 2) What specific information do I need? and 3) How will I use this information?

For example, you might be interviewing 1) donors who contribute more than $1,000 per year to find out 2) the reasons they choose to donate in order to 3) communicate the right messages to other potential donors. Or you might be interviewing 1) adults interested in artistic and cultural experiences to find out 2) what events they attend and how they find them in order to 3) create programming they’ll enjoy and promote it effectively.

2. Don’t make it all about yourself.

Research and marketing isn’t about making customers like your brand. It’s about making your brand something customers will like. You need to focus first on meeting their needs, then shape your product.

In his book The Brand Flip, Marty Neumeier explains that businesses have transitioned to a model driven by customer preferences over the past few decades. He writes, “Power has shifted from companies to customers.”

Since customer preferences drive purchasing, businesses need to understand what those preferences are. Or as Neumeier puts it, “To the degree that the customer is boss, shouldn’t we know what the boss wants?”

To cater to customers’ needs, you need to get inside their heads. How do they perceive your brand? What problems do you solve for them? How can you solve those problems better? Are you offering the right product in the first place?

Build these questions into your focus group preparation, and you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your customer.

3. Don’t write the answers ahead of time.

Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News shows how easy it is to skew research with leading questions. Grab someone on the street and ask, “How do you feel about Krispy Kreme coercing people into celebrating National Coffee Day?” Odds are, he or she won’t say, “Fantastic. I love it.” But ask people how they feel about Krispy Kreme giving away free coffee and donuts, and you’ll get different responses.

In the same way, if you go into your focus group with predetermined expectations, you’ll skew the responses. Instead, your focus group moderator should encourage participants to answer honestly.

When our team runs focus groups, we start each session by emphasizing that participants’ opinions are valuable. We encourage them to say exactly what they’re thinking, then we ask open-ended, neutrally-worded questions to get the best responses.

4. Be willing to listen and adjust course.

If you do your focus groups right, you might not like the answers you get. You might discover a flaw in your business model or find out customers don’t like your product. But this feedback—yes, even the negative stuff—is good for you.

Criticism is an opportunity to improve your product and surprise customers. Take Domino’s as an example. A few years ago, focus groups told them their pizza “tasted like cardboard.” Instead of doubling down on a bad product, they reinvented their product line and used it as a major PR opportunity.

Domino’s actually publicized the criticism they received and announced they were launching a new pizza recipe. The result? In a national taste test, three out of five people preferred Domino’s, and the brand got a major lift from its shockingly transparent campaign.

5. But don’t take everything at face value.

Listening to everything a focus group says is as dangerous as not listening at all. Focus group participants are only a small portion of the population you’re studying, and as author Malcolm Gladwell points out in his bestselling (but oft-criticized) book Blink, some products that test poorly in focus groups succeed in the marketplace

In addition, the Hawthorne effect can influence focus group findings. Also known as the observer effect, this term describes a well-documented phenomenon in which observing participants actually changes their behavior.

Gladwell says, “focus groups should be abolished,” but he’s only partially right. Focus groups reveal insights you would miss in surveys and other quantitative research. And over the years at Pivot, some of the most helpful information we’ve discovered has come from focus groups.

The better approach is to listen to focus group feedback without taking it at face value. You should always verify your findings through additional research and never consider participants’ responses to be the final word.

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to assume you know what your audience wants. After all, your sales numbers tell you when they’re purchasing and what they’re purchasing. Your employees interact with them and know how they behave. Plus, you probably have a gut feeling about what they like and dislike.

But you’re not a mind reader. You could be unaware of underlying discontent. And even if you know your customers well, their needs are constantly evolving.

Focus groups help you understand customers’ behavior and keep up as their needs change, but these groups are only one part of broader research strategy. You should also consider using surveys, phone interviews, market research, sales figures, and other company data.

The best research is a conversation—listening to customers, figuring out what they need, and finding out how to offer it. So as you shape your product and your messaging, approach all of your research with a customer-driven mindset and a willingness to adapt.

Oh, and leave the Magic 8 Ball in the ‘90s where it belongs.