Focus groups are perhaps one of the best known methods in the qualitative research arsenal. In TV, commercials parody focus group participants (seen the Chevrolet ones lately? Or how about the skits on Saturday Night Live?). They’re funny to watch in these contexts, but on a more serious note, focus groups are one of the most effective tactics to figure out what people think about a brand or product.

Which begs the question:

Should you do focus groups for your company?

As is the case for many questions in life, the answer is: It depends. Let’s break it down.

Reason to do focus groups: You’re testing out a concept

Are you involved in product development, launching a new business, or re-tooling a current product or service? If so, focus groups are a great forum to test out the concept. In focus groups, the research company will recruit people within your target market and a few who are on the fringe. Group sizes are typically 3 or 4 groups of 8-10 people. The moderator will start off with some creative brainstorming exercises to get the juices flowing, and then facilitate a discussion about the product or concept you’re testing out. An experienced moderator will make sure to get input from everyone equally, and they should include projective techniques, which get below the surface of what people just say. (Collages, role-playing, and thought bubbles are some popular methods). You can test out concepts, such as:

  • How will people use the new product or app? You can have them first use the app or product in their homes (which is tested through online and mobile qualitative tools), and then gather them back together for additional brainstorming and input.
  • Will your new business concept work? Let’s say you’re launching a new restaurant in town, and you want input from the community on the menu style, décor, and even on nuanced things, such as the type of background music you’ll play.
  • How effective is your service? Perhaps you have a cloud-based accounting service, and you want to talk to small business owners/independent contractors to see how they currently do their accounting, if they would switch to a cloud-based format, and what types of features would be useful to them.

Reason to do focus groups: You’re testing out branding messages

Focus groups are a fantastic platform to test out ad concepts, branding messages, and even get input to develop new campaigns, such as TV commercials. With the various groups, you can do comparisons of the different concepts, test to see how people react to other brands’ commercials, and run concepts to see what gets a laugh out of the participants if you’re trying to develop a humor spot.

Reason to do focus groups: You’re looking for some brainstorming input

Let’s say that you have a product idea in place, but you want to flush it out more. In this case, focus groups are an amazing and highly effective way to get input from your target audience. If you’re developing a new website that allows people to rent clothes every month, find out how many pieces of clothing would be ideal, what price point people would be comfortable paying, how often they’d like for you to communicate with them with email updates, and what types of features your website should have to make the shopping experience seamless.

When NOT to do focus groups

As much as we love focus groups, there is definitely a time and place for this type of methodology. Let’s say you’re trying to get input on a concept or service that is more confidential in nature (such as financial services, personal care products, or HR issues). Here, you wouldn’t want to do focus groups. Or, perhaps your demographic is spread out throughout the country (or world), and it would be too logistically difficult to get everyone in the room at one time. For both of these instances mentioned above, in-depth interviews would be a better choice. In in-depth interviews, participants are interviewed over the phone, individually. Other methods you could use include:

  • In-home or office ethnographies (seeing how people use the product in a certain environment)
  • Online and mobile qualitative panels (getting immediate feedback through apps and through online discussion boards)
  • Blended approaches – pulling people in for in-depth interviews after they’ve completed a survey and volunteered to participate

Focus groups, and the methods outlined in this blog, are truly the most effective way to accurately understand how people think, learn what motivates them, and understand how and why they choose the products they do. In surveys and big data sets, you’re simply not going to get the same richness and depth of responses. If you choose to use focus groups to improve your product development and marketing, make sure you use a third-party neutral firm to help eliminate any internal bias, and to ensure that you’re having research done by experienced, soundly trained experts.

Are focus groups a good fit for your project? We’re a top San Francisco market research firm, specializing in focus groups. Let’s talk!

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