The seduction of focus groups

The seduction of focus groups

The notion of sitting behind one-way glass and voyeuristically observing strangers talking about your company or product is very tantalizing, sometimes even painful. Having participated in hundreds of these qualitative sessions, I’ll offer some thoughts on what to watch for should your research plans include groups.

Respondent sampling is key.

Getting the right mix of the right respondents in a room is crucial. Depending on the product or service, mixed male/female groups can be a problem, as can mixing age, education and employment demographics. Ideally you’ll have no more than 10 and no fewer than 7 respondents per group, so it’s critical that those who show up are screened against pre-established criteria. Professional suppliers always over-recruit for groups: an overabundance is better than too few. It’s not unusual to get an occasional ‘professional respondent’ in the group – someone who’s done a lot of groups. Or, to get people who really don’t meet the criteria in spite of what they reported on the phone. Even if the group discussion has begun, don’t hesitate to toss out a respondent if they don’t fit the screening criteria, are disrupting the discussion, or if you have a sense they are a focus group junkie.

The moderator’s guide is crucial.

If you’re using an independent moderator chances are – as good as they are – they may not be experts on your industry and most definitely not experts on your product or service. The moderator’s guide is a jointly developed “script” for how the moderator will lead the discussion: it will identify areas of particular interest or sensitivity, eliminate information or ideas you’ve already explored or rejected and guide the moderator in digging beneath the obvious to uncover hidden insights.

Developing the guide gives you an opportunity to educate the moderator, to a limited degree, about issues that currently impact your industry and/or your company, and identifies rational and emotional areas to probe. It’s also a way for the moderator to manage the clock: to ensure the right amount of time is spent in the most important areas. Never, ever go into a focus group without ensuring there is ample preparatory time to develop a clear and effective guide. And, once the groups have started, the moderator – not you – should be in charge. If you have questions or issues, write them and have them taken into the room to the moderator. If you have a moderator who prefers to ‘wing it’ to foster free flowing discussion, find a different moderator.

Be sensitive to incentives.

The amount of money respondents are paid for a group depends on the nature of the product and the nature of the groups. As you can imagine, recruiting physicians for focus groups requires a considerably larger incentive than recruiting college students. And, owners of premium brands like Mercedes cost more than recruiting Kia owners; and, automobile groups are more expensive than housewares groups. It’s not always about paying respondents more – it’s important to pay them just enough. Too high an incentive can have just as negative effect on results as paying too little.

Focus groups with extremely tight specifications may require incentives of $1,000 for an hour; premium autos about $100; more conventional products and services $50-$75 per respondent for an hour. Online respondents sometimes require less incentive as they are working from office or home; and, the incentive can be money, merchandise or a gift cards. The incentive should never involve offering your product or service as payment.

Know the Pros and Cons

Online focus groups have their place, but shouldn’t be used as total substitute for in-person groups. The logic of online groups is compelling: national in scope, cost effective, no travel requirement, no limit on client attendance, less influence from “group dynamics.”  Online groups are very popular and very effective. But, there are drawbacks.

First, it puts a heavier burden on the moderator to encourage group participation and to ensure respondents are engaged in the discussion – we can’t know what else is going on during the discussion or how involved respondents really are. It can be a challenge to get respondents engaged with each other – to get comments that add to other comments and encourage a group dialogue. And, it can be difficult to use the groups for products that need tactile exposure – products that need to be held, or inspected. But, online focus groups are a valuable part of a comprehensive research program.  If you’re thinking of engaging in research, or would like to share a positive or negative experience you’ve had, please feel free to drop us a note.

This article is written from the personal perspective of Bill Williams. The opinions and views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Miller Group Advertising.

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