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Focus Group FAIL

When focus groups go bad – eight things clients can do to make sure focus groups FAIL!

1) Unclear objectives

To get the most from focus groups or any marketing research effort, it is imperative that clients know a) what the central issues are and b) how they are going to use the information to make smarter decisions. The good moderators will help focus this effort and be sure the objectives are addressed in the discussion guide.

2) Take shortcuts to reduce the cost

When clients fall into budget shock after getting a quote back from the research company, many will look for ways to reduce the cost to keep the project from being axed. How about if WE do the recruiting? Do we really have to pay the participants an incentive? What if we paid less or gave them a free (whatever their product is)? How about if we don’t feed participants? Why is YOUR fee so high?

Recruiting is exceedingly difficult, and best left to the professionals who do it for a living. They will make the required number of calls to connect, will screen the participants properly, and follow up with emails, directions to the facility and last-minute phone calls to double confirm. Eliminating or reducing the incentive may mean the facility has to make double the number of phone calls to secure the desired number of participants, which of course will mean additional recruiting costs. I have had more than one client insist on handling the recruit to save money, only to find their employees and/or volunteers were not up to the task when the groups were expecting ten participants but had an actual show rate of two or three. Imagine explaining this to your boss. Good recruiting is expensive, but there are no compromises here. No moderator is good enough to make up for participants that don’t show.

3) Insist on covering too much information

Most focus groups allow two hours for the discussion, and many clients will want to cover way too many questions. We know clients frequently are under a lot of political pressure, but focus groups are a qualitative methodology that makes for a deep dive, and it’s better to have two topics  comprehensively covered than thirty topics  covered superficially. Most of the time, the discussion guide should be no longer than two pages. Be certain the moderator is clear on the objectives, and leave lots of room for probing.

4) Ask the groups to do what groups can’t

Focus groups are not the time to be asking for quantitative data unless it leads to comprehensive qualitative probing. Save those questions for the online survey, when the sample size will be much more conducive to quantitative analysis.

5) Treat moderators as vendors/hired lips rather than trusted partners

Experienced moderators can add a TON of value to the research process, because chances are they have seen the research problem one or two times before. They have experience with strategy and tactics, and know the difference. Experienced moderators can help the client clarify the objectives, find the best focus group facilities, develop a tight screening questionnaire than will bring in the most qualified participants, avoid mistakes like the ones mentioned here, create an effective moderator’s guide with the right kinds of questions, and write a report that makes the most sense of the findings. As trusted professionals, they can take on the uncomfortable political challenge of telling your boss or other department heads when a project outline is trying to cover too much ground, or when a line of questioning is inconsistent with the project objectives and will dilute the findings. Together, you and a trusted moderator will do much better work that you could accomplish separately.

6) Hire a moderator based on cost

Do not choose a moderator based upon price. The moderators who can add the most value to your research experience are going to cost you more, but for all of the reasons enumerated above they will be worth every penny you pay them. The good moderators will not just lead lively groups, but will add value to your research effort from beginning to end – and it takes some time and training to develop this experience and expertise. All moderators break into the business by charging less – but raise their fees as they gain more experience. Where in the value curve would you prefer to be?

7) Look only for confirmation – not for insight.

Go into focus groups seeking to understand real emotional benefits, not just confirm what you already know. Make a real effort to put yourself in your customer’s place and view your product or your organization though their eyes. Try to figure out how your product makes their lives better, and what you can do to improve it even more.

8 ) Don’t listen to participants – or worse – make fun of them.

Every moderator has stories of clients who stubbornly refused to listen to focus groups because what the participants were saying ran counter to the conventional wisdom or to what the client really wanted/needed to hear. Again, go into the groups with an open mind and try really to hear what participants are saying. Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Of course, this would have been the surface answer, and many would stop there. The experienced moderators, by probing more, would understand the underlying need or desire was to cover more ground – faster.

In summary – be certain of your objectives, hire the best help you can afford, and listen.

Focus Groups: The Moderator

The focus group: Who should actually lead the discussion?

Nothing you do will have a bigger impact upon the success or failure of your focus groups than the decision you make here. Make it carefully.

Think about this for a second. If you take your car to a mechanic, and he does not fix it, your car will not run properly. In comparison, the focus group moderator could completely botch your groups, and you might never know it. At least two bad things could result: 1) You could make some really ill-advised, expensive decisions that would result in no competitive advantage or improved market position, or 2) you could fail to develop insight that could lead to higher profitability and better market position.

Seriously. There are NO barriers to entry to becoming a focus group moderator. Zero. There is no certification process. No license to get. I have seen people with no experience or training decide, after watching three or four groups, that it would be the perfect job for them to do from home after their babies were born. That and social media consulting. Start up expense? Business cards.

Focus group moderating can be lucrative, and leading groups looks fairly easy to those who fancy themselves to be good with people or are easily conversational – just like Phil Mickelson makes it look easy to hit a golf ball left-handed straight down the fairway. (But in golf, if you land in the rough you KNOW it was a bad shot – it’s simple to quantify good vs. the bad – NOT so with moderating.)

There are atrocious moderators out there who are completely comfortable in the knowledge that no one can ever PROVE their response or approach or moderating style was wrong. They are safe in their incompetence, because there is no safety net to protect clients from bad advice. I have seen moderators do a terrible job in the discussion room: lead respondents, stop with surface answers, put down disagreement, show favoritism, ignore body signals from people who want to talk, and be intimidated by dominating participants, only to have the client sing out “nice job!” when the charlatan came back into the viewing room.Their clients just don’t know any better.

The truth is that it is pretty easy to lead a lively group discussion. It’s a little harder to keep participants on subject, to keep the discussion moving, to bring out the people who are not participating, to inhibit the dominators, to bring people back to the subject when they stray, and to move them along to the next topic when they run out of productive discussion, all the while keeping the project objectives in mind.

You may be tempted to use a newer moderator because she is almost certainly cheaper, she may be available quickly, or he may be a fraternity brother. Or you may have heard that Bob in the PR Department has experience leading his Society of Young Republican discussions every week. He’s willing to do the groups, and he would be lot cheaper. And who knows, each of these may even do a decent job. But if they don’t, how will you know? And what will you trade off by having them do the groups?

Experienced moderators can be a godsend to clients who want an informed and objective perspective on various marketing issues pertaining to the project. Many of them have direct experience in the product category, speak the language, know which facilities are the good ones, and aren’t afraid to take a stand when it comes to projecting an opinion that may be politically difficult. (You know, the one where someone has to tell the CEO that his nephew’s idea for mass marketing tin-foil hats truly sucks.)

Focus group moderators are paid pretty well to know what is important and relevant to the objectives of the study, to understand implications of verbal and body language, to interpret ambiguous or incongruent behaviors, to conceive and develop strategies for getting the answers necessary to reach a successful conclusion, to generate and develop new ideas, and to use qualitative methodologies to project behavior. They not only have to be practiced psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists (disciplines from which most of the best moderators come), but they first and foremost must be superb marketers.

And what makes a superb marketer? Study and experience. Before you can know or be able to predict what REALLY moves people to act, you have to have lived through a hundred or so new marketing campaigns and new product launches. You have to have experience with failure as well as success, to develop a sense for what BOTH look and feel like.

And what about companies doing their own focus groups with their own moderators? We have already mentioned the obvious problems with objectivity and internal politics. That said, people on the inside have an in-depth knowledge of the product, company vision and strategy, and current marketing and advertising that outsider consultants can rarely equal. However, unless they also have experience leading groups, and unless they do focus groups constantly and practice these skills, they are unlikely to have the level of professional expertise that is necessary to do a first class job.

Other guidance and benefits that may be offered by a professional and experienced moderator:

  • Help clarifying the objectives of the research and sharpening the focus of the discussion guide, to prevent “while we’ve got them there, let’s ask…” thinking (this can tremendously dilute the effectiveness of the groups)

  • Providing and objective perspective from the project beginning through the final analysis – they have no corporate objective or axes to grind. They can even help you see through that stuff.

  • Stay focused on clients’ bigger marketing questions, to ensure the research findings are relevant and actionable and actually address the objectives.
  • Provide external credibility and clarity to internal politics when necessary. When you need someone to present the findings to management, especially when they are likely to argue about the findings, the professional researcher can come in very handy.

In short, a professional moderator can make you think in different ways, explore divergent points of view, challenge the corporate perspective, destroy groupthink, undermine political gamesmanship, and find better, innovative ways to market the company. She or he can also make you look very good and very smart to dubious C-Suite executives who want to second-guess every marketing decision.

So BE CAREFUL. Investigate the experience of the moderators you are considering. Ask them how many groups they have done. Ask them to explain some of their techniques for establishing rapport with respondents, and for handling defensive or quiet participants. Ask them how they know they are getting “real” answers in the groups. See how quickly they “get” the marketing issues, and ask their advice regarding how your groups should be set up. Ask them for references, and call the references.

For more information, take a look at the website of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association. (www.qrca.org) This is a very well-informed group of professional researchers who spend most of their days thinking of ways they can do a better job improving their clients’ profitability.

What ARE Focus Groups?

You were in a meeting and somebody threw it out there. We need some answers and we need them pretty quick. Why don’t we do a couple of focus groups and let our customers decide? Or convene a focus group of the people who don’t do business with us and ask them why they prefer our competitors? (Are those non-customer bozos even worth talking to, really, since they obviously don’t “get” us?)

And YOU – for whatever reason – were handed the responsibility of getting it done. Or at least of getting the answers to a few important questions, such as:

  • Will focus groups give us the answers we need?
  • How many groups are enough? How many should be in each group?
  • Whom do we recruit for the sessions, and how do we do it?
  • What kind of questions do we ask?
  • How much do focus groups cost, anyway?

So here we are. What now?

Will focus groups give us the answers we need?

First, consider whether focus groups are the right tool for the job. Focus groups are a method of qualitative research that investigates WHY people do things in hopes of furthering our understanding of motivations and how to influence them. WHY they go to certain stores. Why they embrace brands. Why they buy some products and not others. Or how self-image could ever induce thinking that inhaling 43 known carcinogens and eventually changing the looks of his lungs from the one on the left to the one on the right is somehow “cool”.

Qualitative research deals with emotions, psychology and motivation, such as what needs your product or service satisfies. And what needs force people to take money to your competitors. Qualitative research involves distinctions – or comparisons based upon distinguishing characteristics. Its goal is to understand the feelings, values, and perceptions that underlie and influence behavior – understanding that will help marketers make better, more informed marketing decisions when they are TRYING to influence that behavior.

Focus groups will help you connect with your market: to become

  • More aware of what is going on with your customers
  • More aware of their patterns of evaluation and thinking
  • More aware of their imagery and perceptions and how those relate to purchase decisions
  • More aware of customers’ likes, dislikes, frustrations and desires
  • More aware of your relative competitive position in the marketplace, as defined by the market

What you do with all of this awareness is what creates your marketing advantage. The goal is to use this information as the underpinning and foundation of your marketing decisions – to develop strategy – inform tactics – that you hope will assist in taking you from where you are, to where you want to be – in terms of profitability, market share and market position.

What Focus Groups Are NOT:

Focus groups are in no way quantitative. They will not answer the question “how many”, such as how many or what percentage of customers will like or buy our new Illudium PU-36 Space Modulator. But they CAN answer the question of what aspects of our new Illudium PU-36 Space Modulator make purchasers very angry, very angry indeed.

They cannot answer questions of “how much” – such as how much better is customer service at one bank than another?

Excellent objectives for focus group investigation are ones such as these:

  • Why do people buy our product? Why do they NOT buy our product? What could we say or do or be to sell more products? What do we have to do to increase our market share, or to increase the size of the market pie?

  • How do customers USE our product? Is it like we think it is, or different? How could we make it even more useful to them (and make them buy more)?

  • What opportunities are we missing? What markets are we ignoring? What’s happening out there that we should know about, but don’t? How are our markets changing? How are our customers’ needs changing?
  • What do customers find frustrating about doing business with us? Why don’t black people, women, seniors, or other demographic segments buy our stuff?

  • What are our strengths and weaknesses? What are we doing right, and wrong? What could we do better?

  • How could we do a better job of reaching (or meeting the needs of) a particular segment or market? (Rich people, women, ethnics, suburbs, etc.)

  • How do people in certain segments communicate with each other? How should we reach them? What could we say to have more credibility?

  • How do people use our website? What could we do to make it more useful for customers, and more effective as a business development tool for us?

TERRIBLE and WRONG objectives for focus groups include the following:

  • If we make this change to our product or distribution, how many more people will buy it? Or would they be more likely to buy it?

  • What would be the right price to set for this product? How much is the maximum price would people pay? What is their choke point?

  • Asking people to come up with new product ideas, or even to pass judgment on new product ideas that they have never seen in use. Imagine doing a focus group of people regarding the feasibility of air travel in 1915. Sometimes people just aren’t qualified to make judgments, and this is almost always true regarding what they are going to use in the future.

  • Before running an advertising campaign, let’s ask customers and prospects what they think of the creative. How much will people like this advertising program? (Focus groups CAN be used as “disaster checks” or to investigate “what” exactly the people think the ad is trying to communicate.)

  • How satisfied are our customers compared with customers of the competition? (They can investigate what people think the competition does better – or what customers WISH you did that you don’t.)

  • Focus groups let you dive deep. Have you ever had a conversation with a child in which they asked “why” after every one of your answers? Children may do it to put off their bedtime, but focus group moderators do it for enlightenment!

Because if moderators can answer the question of “why” customers buy or don’t buy a product and provide their clients with that understanding, all of a sudden the job of marketing the organization just got a lot easier; the motivating issues just became clearer.

Focus groups provide foundational understanding that can help you make better,

more informed, more relevant, and more successful marketing decisions. You will think in terms of customers’ needs – see the world through their eyes – use words customers use in real life – and position your product in a way that customers and prospects will understand and will be meaningful to them. You will, in short, come closer to “getting it”, and your marketing will reflect this understanding. In the “competition for eyeballs”, you stand a much better chance of being noticed – and being noticed saying relevant things that motivate consumers to action.

A Simple Customer Satisfaction Survey

Two questions guaranteed to help your bottom line.

I LOVE questions. As a marketing researcher, a value-add I bring frequently to clients is to help them figure out what makes customers tick – what makes customers happy, and what makes them buy more of my clients’ products and services.

One thing that absolutely, positively does NOT make customers happy? Long, boring and repetitive customer satisfaction surveys.

I have been guilty, and have seen other researchers be similarly blameworthy, of asking WAY too many questions in the typical customer survey. I have seen customer satisfaction surveys stretched to over 100 questions, which can tax the goodwill and satisfaction of even the most elated customers.

The Ultimate Question

It hit home again with me the other day when I re-read one of my favorite research books, The Ultimate Question, by Fred Reichheld. In this excellent book, Mr. Reichheld boils the customer satisfaction issue down to one ultimate question:

“How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?” He uses a ten point scale, and divides the reponses as follows:

  • “9″ and “10″ Scores are “Promoters”
  • “7″ and “8″ scores are “Passives”
  • “6″ or less are “Detractors”

(NPS) Net Promoter Score = Promoters – Detractors

This could not be more simple. There typically are some follow-up questions, but the net result is a quicker survey that provides outstanding and actionable research data. REmember, it’s not the information, but WHAT you do with it that makes the difference.

I have implemented this survey for several clients, and found that respondents react very well to the simplicity, and spend less time exasperated by a convoluted line of inquiry. And for the report of findings, there is even a neat web site that provides net promoter scores for various organizations ranging from airlines to fast food, which lets you see how you stack up compared with other businesses. Clients like it because they are not overwhelmed with reams of survey data. Follow up, concrete action and score improvements are straightforward and easy for employees to understand.

Two more questions that can yield very profitable insight:

1. How would you rate our customer service on a scale of ten, with ten being the highest?

2. (If less than 10) What would we have to change or improve to get a ten?

Then – listen. Get together with others to discuss and brainstorm your findings.

In research, simple and short are ALWAYS better.

Check out The Ultimate Question here.

And thanks so much for reading! I hope you will forward this to a friend or colleague that may find the information helpful.

Focus Groups IN Advertising

Focus Groups are frequently used to introduce new products, but not the way that BBDO is doing it here! And no – it does not mean that focus groups as a methodology have jumped the shark!


And then there is Domino’s, which surprised participants who thought they were taking part in a real focus group in a series of three commercials by CP+B:

I wonder if they used focus groups the “real” way – and that is to uncover consumer needs and develop their creative? In any event, my thinking is that these will increase awareness for the methodology among both participants and potential clients.

Martin Research Blog

I’m starting over with the blogs.

I’ve blogged on marketing research and marketing for while, but have decided to change the focus to one that is more concentrated in my core strength and experience, which is marketing research!

Even people who love marketing can find research-speak to be a cure for insomnia, and I will strive valiantly to make the content interesting, helpful and informative to readers who are looking for some insight and/or tips on how they can get the most from their research dollars – or avoid the mistakes that are SUCH a  waste of time and money.

I promise to avoid abstruse quantitative theory – many do that better than I ever  could – and focus upon the insight and intuition achieved when we sit down with real people (online and in-person) and ask what makes them tick – what annoys them – what inspires them – and why they are moved by some products and not others.