Stuck in research land again?  Trying to get inside the mind of your Ideal Client? Maybe you’ve heard about this thing called a “focus group” and you thought, Yeah, that’s what we need to do! Mmmm. Perhaps. A focus group can be helpful. It can also take you down a country road, if you’re not careful. Where the cell service is <gasp!> almost nonexistent. So in the interest of me keeping you out of danger, here are some things to know — both good and bad — about focus groups.

The Bad News about Focus Groups

1. People lie. One of the facts of human existence is that we don’t always have conscious control of our thoughts. I’m sure you observed a friend or family member lying to themselves about something? Yeah, we all do that. So, if you ask us a question, we might not give you an honest answer. And we might not even know we’re not telling you the truth. 2. People like to be liked. Another fun fact you already knew. And guess what? If you couple #2 with #1, you again are left with the fact that people will tell you what they think you want to hear. Or, they’ll tell you what they think the other folks in the room want to hear. 3. Focus groups fall into the “Qualitative Research” category. This means, the data you collect is really more about emotions and subjective impressions than it is about hard data. It’s nothing you can or should base big ticket decisions on. And it’s certainly not enough to make a credible claim that your thing is going to be a huge hit. 4. Focus groups can be expensive. If you want to eliminate as much of the iffiness as possible, you’ll want to use at least one, maybe two skilled objective strangers to facilitate (i.e., people who aren’t invested emotionally in the outcome of the focus group’s efforts). You’ll also need to offer some sort of remuneration to your test subjects — a free meal and/or a small stipend are the usual tidbits. And then there’s renting a facility, recording and/or video taping the process, and then having everything transcribed. God forbid, you need to do this multiple times…

Now the Good News

1. Small groups of people in conversation can yield helpful insights. The caveat is that insights like these are best gathered before you build your product or service, not after. The optimum approach is to ask an objective, non-leading question and then listen. Don’t insert yourself too much into the banter or you’ll end up with feedback that’s more about pleasing the facilitator than it is about sharing thoughts and feelings. 2. It’s a lot less expensive than using Neuromarketing research methods. It’s still fairly new and unless you’ve got tens of thousands of extra dollars in your marketing budget, it’s really not an option, but neuromarketing research is proving to yield much more reliable results than traditional market research.

Tips for Getting the Best Results

1. Compare and contrast. Have more than one option for your focus group participants to look at so they can objectively compare. Ideally, that might be your thing plus two others (from competitors). Don’t tell them which is yours. Just ask them which one(s) they like and dislike and why. 2. Visualize their perfect thing. After they’ve compared the things in the room, ask them what kind of features their ideal thing would have. Where would they find it? How would it be delivered? What would it cost? 3. Smaller is better. Don’t plan to have more than 8 to 10 (12 max) people for more than two hours. Better to hold multiple sessions with smaller groups for shorter time periods (45 to 90 min is optimum). 4. Don’t ask too many questions. Plan on only addressing only one to three major issues during your time with the participants. More than that is hard to manage. 5. Use a skilled moderator. Find someone who’s good at keeping individuals from hogging the floor. Someone who can tactfully keep everyone involved in the conversation. And someone who knows when to bend and allow a conversation to veer off track when it looks like it might yield something really interesting. 6. Plan ahead. Good planning for a focus group may take anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks (depending on your needs and resources). Don’t rush it. 7. Understand the process. There’s a great little guide published by Duke University on how to conduct focus groups. Read it. Does all this mean you can’t conduct your own focus groups? Not at all. You just need to understand the ideal setting and processes so you can approach your project with as much knowledge and foresight as possible. AND so you take your findings with a grain of salt. The first time I ever conducted a focus group, I was working as the MarComm manager for a healthcare company whose employees weren’t responding well to new management. I mentioned to my colleague in HR that they should consider holding a few focus groups with the staff to find out what was really going on, and the next thing I knew, I was running the project. Staff got to stay anonymous and air their concerns and I got to learn on-the-fly about how to facilitate (and document) a tricky discussion. The next time I decided to hold a focus group, I made sure to prepare well ahead of time and enlist some facilitators who weren’t emotionally attached to the outcome. (I quietly observed video recordings after the fact.) What about you? Have you ever attempted something like this? Share your experiences in the comments below. I’d love to hear about ’em!

And now for a little levity on Truth:

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