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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.

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