How focus groups work – a real-life perspective

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

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Snapshot : 5 useful things we get from focus groups. And 5 not so useful things to watch out for. In this article, we cover how focus groups work and how they fit in to your market research planning. 

Picture the scene in the life of the marketer. It’s fairly late at night, say 10.30 pm and you’ve just arrived home. Your significant other asks you why you are home so late. You explain that you’ve been watching focus groups for the last 3 hours. 

What’s a focus group?” your significant other asks.

You sigh wearily.

Oh, well, it’s when you sit in a darkened room with a bunch of your marketing and agency colleagues behind a two way mirror listening to group of complete strangers telling you what they think of your new product or advertising campaign and generally how it could be ‘better’

And was it useful?

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

5 ‘useful’ things about how focus groups work.

  1. It’s a chance to get out of the office. That’s always a good thing.
  2. There’s always a huge amount of snacks and food on offer. If it’s an evening focus group, be prepared to still be awake at 3am from the sugar rush.
  3. It’s really the only chance you’ll be able to watch ‘consumers’ without them seeing you. Even though it feels a bit weird and voyeuristic really. Because even though you tell respondents there are people watching, they forget after about 2 minutes. And secretly watching someone picking their nose when they think no-one is looking is weirdly fun.
  4. The respondents may come out with a great idea. Or a way of looking at a product innovation or an advertisement differently. Or they could totally wreck your months of work trying to find the solution to their problem. However, they may also talk complete and utter rubbish for an hour. You have no idea what’s going to happen really. But you take that chance that at least one of the groups will come up with something ‘golden’.
  5. Respondents who know about marketing are generally 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

  1. It’s a very unnatural setting. How often do you get put in room with a group of complete strangers and discuss your preferences in toothpaste or home insurance or nappies? Unless you do focus groups, never. So how likely is it what comes up in the focus group about the topics reflects what would actually happen back in ‘real’ life?
  2. Group dynamics and social / cultural norms have a huge impact. There’s almost alway a know-it-all / loudmouth who dominates the rest of the group. And at least 2 people who never say anything unless directly asked. Good moderators will be on the lookout for these behaviours, but still, it does affect the way the group conversation will go and it is often the loudest voice that’s heard the most.
  3. In most cases, especially advertising campaigns, the group don’t actually get to look at a finished advert. What they’ll see is either a series of ‘scamps’ – rough line drawings of the story of the ad, or ‘concept boards’ – some sort of Twitter-esque statement about the product or advert. The respondents will be asked to comment on. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. You are listening to between 6 and 10 people normally. The fact they are ‘normal’ non-marketers is a good thing. 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. It’s usually pot luck in the hands of the research agency that they’ve found a ‘good’ group of respondents for you.

Use focus groups wisely

For all this, we’ve generally enjoyed going to focus groups. And not just for the out of office, snacks and voyeurism. And we can do all those things without going to focus groups. Just go the nearest coffee shop. But maybe be a bit careful with the voyeurism. Or call it people watching.

Watching (and listening) to people who use your product BUT who are not marketing experts is a really good, if jolting way to give you some real-life perspective.

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 your consumers will do too. Just not the case.

Focus on the consumer’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 consumers questions and listen to their answers, you’ll never know what they want.

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

But for us, they also work at a more human level. They are what forces marketers to not take themselves too seriously. Because your target audience don’t really understand or care what your marketing thinking is. What they do really care about is what your brand will do for them.

For most brands, you’ll have a few seconds of attention when the consumer is at the supermarket shelf or googling your product or service online. Once their decision is done, that’s it. They don’t really think about your brand again until they need to re-order / replenish.

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

Most common marketing applications of focus groups

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

They are also great as part of the advertising development process. What might seem like a clear and compelling advertising idea when your agency presents it to you, might land very differently when shown to your actual audience.

Focus groups don’t have the benefit of a brief or your knowledge of the brand. You just get their immediate reaction to what you are trying to communicate.

These insights are a vital part 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

Coffee Shop : Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

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