Why read this? : We look at the realities of how focus groups work. Learn why they’re a great way to gather feedback, but also why they don’t always go smoothly. Read this for ideas on how to make your focus group work better.
There’s a familiar scene in the life of all marketers. It’s fairly late. Let’s say 10.30 pm.
You’ve just arrived home.
Your significant other asks why you’re 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.
“Ah, 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 strangers talk about your new product or advertising campaign. Usually, they complain about something, and tell you how it could be ‘better’”.
“And was it useful?”
Um. That 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.
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
It’s the only way you can watch and listen to customers without them seeing you. Even though it’s 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 weird.
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 wreck months of work. However, they may also talk complete rubbish. You’ve no real idea what’s going to happen. But you take the chance at least one group will come up with something good.
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
It’s an unnatural setting. How often do you discuss your preferences in toothpaste, home insurance or nappies with a room of strangers? Never.
So how likely is it that what comes up in the focus group reflects what happens back in ‘real’ life?
Group dynamics have a huge impact.
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, the group don’t see finished products or advertising campaigns. Instead, they see a series of ‘scamps’. Rough line drawings of the story of the idea. Or they see ‘concept boards’. Some sort of Twitter-style statement about the product or advert. The respondents are asked to comment on these, not the actual product or advert. This is like showing you the meal ingredients before it’s cooked, and asking if you think it’ll taste good.
Paid to be there
In a focus group, you listen to the views of 6-10 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 bunch of random strangers. And get a completely different response. The quality of the sample is up to the research company. You have to cross your fingers that they find a ‘good’ group 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 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 have 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 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.
Focus groups at a theoretical level are a qualitative research approach used to generate hypotheses and test out concepts with actual customers.
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.
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
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 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 sitting 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.