Skip to content

How focus groups work – a real-life perspective

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

Share This Post

Why read this? : Focus groups are a great way to ask your customers questions and listen to their feedback. But they don’t always go smoothly. We share our top 5 most and least favourite things about working with focus groups. Read this to learn how focus groups work in real life. 

Picture the scene in the life of the marketer.

It’s fairly late at night, say 10.30 pm. You’ve just arrived home.

Your significant other asks why you’re home so late. You explain you’ve been watching focus groups for the last 3 hours. 

What’s a focus group?” they ask.

You sigh wearily.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Oh, well, it’s when you sit in a dark room with a bunch of your marketing and agency colleagues. You’re behind a 1-way mirror and you listen to group of complete strangers telling you what they think of your new product or advertising campaign. That usually means they complain about something, and tell you how it could be ‘better’”.

And was it useful?

Um. That really depends on your definition of ‘useful’.

5 ‘useful’ things about how focus groups work

Out of office

It’s a chance to get out of the office. That’s always a good thing.

Snacks

There’s always a huge amount of snacks and food in the room. With an evening focus group, be prepared to be awake at 3am from the sugar rush.

Watch and listen

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

It’s the only way you can watch and listen to customers without them seeing you. Even though it’s kinda weird and voyeuristic. You tell respondents people are watching, but they forget. And secretly watching someone pick their nose when they think no-one’s looking is kinda weird.

Ideas

The respondents may come up with a great idea. Better than you might get in your own idea generation meeting, for example. They may inspire your innovation or advert to go in a different direction. Which could totally wreck months of work. However, they may also talk complete rubbish. You’ve no idea what’s going to happen really. But you take the chance at least one of the groups will come up with a good idea.

Unfiltered and unbiased

Respondents who know about marketing are screened out in advance. It means you get to solutions unfiltered and unbiased by marketing jargon. No BS. This is a good thing. Marketers generally find it hard to talk without using jargon or BS. 

5 ‘not so useful’ things about how focus groups work

Unnatural setting

It’s an unnatural setting. How often do you discuss your preferences in toothpaste or home insurance or nappies with a room of complete strangers? Never.

So how likely is it what comes up in the focus group reflects what happens back in ‘real’ life?

Group dynamics

Group dynamics have a huge impact.

Blond woman partially hidden behind a leafy bush

There’s always a loudmouth who dominates the group. And at least 2 people who never say anything unless directly asked.

Good moderators look out for this, but it still affects the group conversation. It’s often the loudest voice that’s heard the most. This can make some focus groups hard work to watch. 

Reviewing unfinished work

In most cases, especially advertising campaigns, the group don’t actually get to look at a finished advert or product. What they’ll see is a series of ‘scamps’. These are rough line drawings of the story of the ad. Or they see ‘concept boards’ – some sort of Twitter-style statement about the product or advert. The respondents will be asked to comment on these, not the advert or product. This is a bit like showing you all the ingredients for the meal before you cook it and asking if you think it’ll taste good.

Paid to be there

Everyone in the room is paid to be there. That’s a piece of bias right there. Most people when you pay them will look for positives as a quid pro quo for being paid to give their opinion.

Random strangers

In a focus group, you listen to the views of between 6 and 10 customers. The fact they’re ‘normal’ customers, and not other marketers is good.

But arguably you could go into your local cafe / pub / shopping centre and pick another 6 to 10 random strangers. And get a completely different view of the world. The quality of the sample is up to the research company. You have to cross your fingers they find a ‘good’ group of respondents for you.

Use focus groups wisely

For all this, we still think there’s some value in working with focus groups. And not just for the the time out of office, the snacks and the voyeurism. It puts you in the (next) room with customers, and lets you hear them talk about your brand honestly. Even if that honesty can be painful to hear sometimes. 

Watching (and listening) to people who use your product BUT who aren’t marketing experts gives you some real-life perspective. As a marketer, you need to see the world the way customers do.

When you work in brand strategy, that’s your all day, every day reason for being. So it’s very easy to fall into the trap that if YOU think like that, then surely customers will too. But real life’s not like that. 

Focus on the customer’s perspective

And that’s really the key point in how focus groups work in your whole marketing activity.

Because, if you don’t take the time to ask customers questions and listen to their answers, you’ll never know what they want. Feedback matters a lot. 

It’s why market research is so important.  

Focus groups at a theoretical level are a qualitative research approach used to generate hypotheses and test out concepts with actual customers.

Two people holding up large ears on a small dog

But for us, they also work at a more human level. They’re what forces marketers to not take themselves too seriously. They put a face on all the theories you learn from behavioural science or design psychology

Because your target audience don’t understand or care about your marketing plan. They care about what your brand will do for them.

For most brands, you have a few seconds of attention when the customer is at the supermarket shelf or googling your product or service online. Once they’ve decided, that’s it. They don’t think about your brand again, until the next time they need to buy. 

So spend some time in a focus group watching and listening to how they actually use your product. 

Conclusion - How focus groups work

Focus groups are great in the early stages of marketing innovation. They help you identify customer needs and how people currently solve their problems in your category.

They’re also helpful in the advertising development process. What might seem like a clear and compelling advertising idea when your agency presents it to you, might not have the same effect on your the target audience.

Customers in focus groups don’t see your brief. They don’t know the brand like you do. But what you can get is their immediate and natural reaction to what you’re trying to do.

It’s more real than what you can come up with sat at your desk or in a meeting. It’s as close to the real life reaction as you can get. So, make these insights count. They’re what really matters in terms of how focus groups work.

Use them wisely.

Read our guide to qualitative research or contact us to find out more. 

Photo credits

Snacks : Photo by Fernanda Rodríguez on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Dog ears : Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

Coffee Shop : Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Share this content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest blog posts

Subscribe to get three-brains updates