Since their debut in the 1950s, focus groups have become central to advertising and marketing research. In a focus group, a handful of people focus their discussion on a certain topic, product or product category. The describe how they use a product and what caused them to buy it. When they work, focus groups reveal consumer behavior.
But something has gone awry. When marketers and advertising agencies run out of ideas, they often ask consumers to do their homework for them. They expect focus groups to make decisions they themselves should make.
Many marketers who sponsor groups expect too much and put in too little. When unsure of themselves, the answer becomes, "Let's run more groups." One company sponsored 65 focus groups and the manager still considered the results inconclusive. While this is good business for the research supplier, it doesn't say much for management savvy. To avoid such problems, here are seven tips on how to run a successful focus group.
- Spread them out When held in a variety of geographic locations, focus groups can reflect how a cross section of consumers will react to a product. Too many managers book groups in nearby areas to save time and money, then expect the finding s to hold true across the country. Often they don't.
- Make it real To make a focus group work, the members must be able to respond to a product the way they do in the real world. Consumers react to names, colors, packaging and an adept moderator's questioning. Too often consumers are asked to theorize on what they think they want. They are asked to react to sketchy white cards that have no relation to the real world.
- Be flexible Some moderators' outlines look like screenplays instead of tools for gathering insights.
"Among some clients there is paranoia that a group can go sour if it is not tightly controlled", according to Ira Berenhaus, research manager of the Wool Bureau. But controlling a focus group defeats its purpose. "The reason that groups are so helpful is that there is give and take," explains Berenhaus. Unfortunately, he says, clients expect a focus group to mesh perfectly with the notions they bring in. "Clients ought to realize that ideas and groups don't always work out the way you expect.
- Take no for an answer Negative feedback is as important as positive feedback, especially in highlighting potential pitfalls. Rather than admit a product is not appealing, however, marketers often settle for half-hearted responses. "I'd buy it if I had a coupon" becomes a rousing success story when retold to a client.
- Be there The greatest sin of all is not to be there. The best response you can get from a focus group is often nonverbal. Body language can show real enthusiasm, genuine disinterest, or intractable opposition. Sometimes just three little words, "I'd buy that," are loaded with meaning. But it's difficult to include subtle responses in a report.
If you are not at the focus group, you won't know what happened. The president of a famous cheese company sat in stunned disbelief as one group after another criticized his cheese, his company's advertising and his company. No report could have communicated what he learned by sitting in back of the mirror. There was a happy ending: he repackaged his product, renamed it and repositioned it in the marketplace. His sales doubled.
- Find virgins Some marketers are replacing the consumers in their focus groups with so-called consumer experts. Some people make a fair second income by attending focus groups and they're rapidly turning into a subclass of marketing experts. But after attending several groups, consumers lose their objectivity. Experienced respondents are easy to spot. -- They're the ones commenting on marketing and advertising theory.
- Don't entertain Many marketers are afraid they will bore a focus group. But bored groups are part of the game. And so are sour groups. The fun starts when consumers are shown a product that makes them say "Aha!" One insight about one product makes it all worthwhile.
These insights can yield marketing breakthroughs. Arm & Hammer's famous baking-soda-in-the-refrigerator campaign came about because of focus groups. The people behind the mirrors saw something and built on it.