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One of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live skits is … you guessed it. A spoof on new product market research. Melissa McCarthy and her fellow cast members help test out salad dressing flavors for Hidden Valley Ranch, and what unfolds is cringe-worthy, as a market researcher. If you haven’t seen the episode, give yourself 6 minutes of some laugh-time and watch it >

I re-watched the skit recently, and it got me thinking – what are the Dos and Don’ts of focus groups? At InterQ, we do a lot of new product market research, and one of our favorite marketing research tools is the focus group. Without careful moderation by the focus group facilitator (and selective screening), the process can unfold in a similar fashion to the SNL skit. So without further ado, here are some tips on how to run a focus group, and some advice on what not to do.

Focus Group DO: Screen participants carefully

In the SNL skit, Melissa McCarthy’s character is an overly-enthusiastic brand advocate of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing (annnnd she’s also a little desperate for cash). The other focus group participants are a bit more subdued.

When doing focus group recruiting for new product market research, you want to include people who are familiar with the brand or category, but if people self-describe as being “YOUR BIGGEST BRAND FAN EVER” in your screening questionnaire, you might want to think carefully before choosing them. Yes, you want a range of people who shop in the category that you’re testing, and if you’re releasing a new product line in your brand, brand familiarity is great, but you also want to test opinions from more neutral participants. Depending on the project, you may need to include “outliers” – people who never shop the category, or, like in the SNL skit, people who use your product every day – but be cautious of the results. If the moderator senses that the focus group participant is simply telling the moderator all of the “right” answers, this is when it’s time to be more cautious about the participant’s data.

Focus Group DO: Prepare with a well-vetted discussion guide

The discussion guide is one of your key tools in the focus group. Traditionally, the agency and client will develop the guide collaboratively. It’s then the agency’s job to test the discussion guide with non-participants to ensure that the question flow works, that the questions are structured in a way to get complete answers, and that the timing works. During the actual focus group, the moderator should feel free to iterate and expand on the questions as topics develop, but ultimately, manage and control the discussion so it doesn’t get out-of-hand. If you’ve watched the SNL skit, well … the discussion gets away from the moderator.

Focus Group DO: Give every participant an equal voice

The SNL skit illustrates perfectly (a little too perfectly, perhaps) what happens when one participant dominates the group, bullies others, and tries to influence fellow participant’s answers. When managing a focus group discussion, it’s also your job to ensure that no single member dictates the discussion. Be sure to ask the other participants to speak up and join in, and if a participant starts to bully or influence others, you should ask the person to leave the group.

New product market research should be fun – yet serious

Testing new products and conducting new product market research with focus groups is one of the more effective ways to understand consumer opinions and tastes. It can be a fun, thrilling process as new insights are gleaned, but it requires careful structure, an experienced moderator, a well-written discussion guide, and professional participant screening. Once the focus group is complete, it takes an experienced team of qualitative market researchers to carefully comb through the data, code it, analyze the results, and write a comprehensive report detailing the findings.

In the right hands, the results will transform how you develop and market your products.

Interested in new product research? Focus groups are our specialty, so let’s talk. We are the best San Francisco market research company to give you product research insights >