Yay or nay when not to focus group

Focus groups are a favourite of marketeers – and why not? Quick and easy qualitative data that allows ‘the people’ to discuss your product at length? The boss’ll love that. But are they as useful as the reputation that surrounds them?

The answer is yes and no. That doesn’t sound very helpful, of course, but this blog isn’t about absolutist answers, it’s about assessing the variables for you to decide for yourself whether focus groups are right for you.

When you should

Focus groups obviously have some very useful applications. The dynamics of a group can delve further and gain deeper insight that you might not normally have picked up on by yourself. You can find out what you didn’t know you don’t know.

But perhaps one of the most useful purposes of focus group research is testing user interface, as told to me by Paul Marten – Creative Director here at Dusted.

“Many marketeers feel the need to do focus groups.” He told me, but there are some areas where it’s less effective. “Emotive research has too many variable factors to work 100% reliably with focus groups. When you take a small sample size, the answers can be too subjective and non-representative.”

Alright, alright, we’re getting to ‘when you shouldn’t’, but when is it a good idea, Paul? “They are ideally suited to logical or user experience research. If you have a website you thought was easy to use but then get a room full of people who can’t figure it out, you’ve gained qualitative research.

“When you ask someone a design question, you’re often asking them about things they absorbed in their subconscious. You’re bringing their subconscious to their conscious, and they may not know how to articulate or deconstruct those points, but still feel the need to comment.”

In addition to focus groups giving you great UI and digital marketing feedback, it can also work wonders for re-branding. That way you have more control over your sample, since your brand already has a following that can compare this experience with the previous. However, a poorly organised focus group may well end up hindering your research, which brings us to…

When you shouldn’t

Problems arise when not enough consideration is given to the members of the focus group. The wrong crowd will generate poor input. To give an example – if you’re testing a product targeted at upper-management, then you’re going to have trouble finding an accurate representation. Upper-management folk have no incentive to be part of a focus group when they could be in the parlour eating bread and honey or whatever.

Not just the crowd, but also a well chosen facilitator. “There may be one character in the group with the ability to influence the others, often by bullying. If there’s one person repeatedly arguing with everyone, then other members of the group will be less interested in sharing their opinions. At that point the whole process is wasted. A good facilitator will be able to keep control of the entire group.”

Some focus groups have also made the mistake of trying to discuss subjects that people might be uncomfortable talking about in a group. These kind of discussions are best left on a one-to-one basis. On the other side of the same coin, if you require a sample to represent national or even international markets, then a collection of philosophy students from Durham might not be the most accurate.

Once it’s all done and collected (or Dusted, if you will), you then need skilled people to analyse the data collected. The right people need to be able to interpret feedback or even, if needs be, scrap it. The boss’ll love that less, but that’s how you get the right results.

Paul finished our discussion with some parting words of wisdom. “Know what you’re trying to achieve and what insight you want. There are a lot of focus group variables, but having a disciplined criteria can focus your feedback and keep it relevant – whether it’s feedback you expected or not. There’s an old saying; ‘If you don’t know where you’re going then all roads lead there’.”