Focus Groups – Are They Fruitful or Folly?

2-green-apples.jpg  As with most research techniques, there are many different opinions out there regarding the usefullness of focus groups.  Some find them extremely valuable, others find them a waste of time and a lot of money.  Maybe they are all correct.  Like any technique, it’s how you plan and execute that helps determine the outcome.  I conducted a focus group project last week with 18-25 yr olds on the topic of banking, web 2.0, and social media.  For myself and the sponsor it provided a vast amount of insight and has really helped provide direction for our project.  So what makes the difference between focus groups that are fruitful versus those that are folly?

First, it depends upon where you are in the product development phase.  I have found focus groups most valuable and most cost-effective near the beginning of product development.  It’s the point when you are looking for ideas, trying to understand motivations, and what is good and bad about current offerrings in the market. 

Second, preparation can make or break a focus group.  That includes everything from recruiting, to location, to moderator preparation.  I found this demographic of 18-25 yr olds hard to recruit, but with a little creativity we managed to get some really great participants.  Several want to stay involved and help us create the product!  Recruting includes your message, your topic, your incentive, and your time and location.   Moderator prep is a critical element.  I spend significant time researching the topic, meeting with my client to clarify goals, and creating the moderator guide that I will use during the session.  Many say that the moderator can make or break the focus group.

Third, all the prep in the world can’t help you if you don’t win their trust by being genuinely interested in their opinions and ask questions in the right way.  Focus groups aren’t about the moderator, they are about the participants.  To get groups going in the right direction I like to use these type of questions:

  • “One thing that I’m surprised no one has mentioned is _____________. Does it matter or not?”
  • “I recall that some of you mentioned something a little different earlier, and I wonder how things like ____________ fit into the picture?”

Be sure to have a good method for recording the session.  Be open-minded. You want to facilitate and at the same time be open to exploring directions that you had not thought about.  For example, one insight that came out of the web 2.0/social media project was that 18-25 years olds are somewhat different than Gen X, and very different than Baby Boomers in their approach to growing up and becoming adults.  That also has a big impact on how they approach their personal finances and banking services. 

It’s about timing, preparation, and moderator skills.  With those in mind, may all your focus groups be fruitful!

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3 Responses

  1. Absolutely agree with you. Focus groups are not inherently good or bad. But they can be very valuable in the right situations when they’re done right AND when the firm actually uses the insights. As for Gen Yers (18-27 year olds), they ARE different. I am finishing up research on how to design experience tailored directly for this audience. The effort has uncovered a set of distinguising attributes for these younger consumers. I presented some early findings at Forrester’s Consumer Forum last week — and have posted a bit of that presentation on my blog: http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/ (scroll down a few posts). Concidentally, I just put up a post today telling banks that they need to focus more on Gen Y (before I read this post.)

  2. Thanks for the comment Bruce. Research and interacting with Gen Y’ers has been really fun for me. Their views of banking, and debt in particular is really interesting – these views seemed to be formulated by looking at their parent’s situations. The insights from your Consumer Forum are excellent (http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/2007/10/11/a-view-of-forresters-consumer-forum/) – thanks for sharing them. This group is different and requires a different approach than those traditionally used by banks and credity unions.

  3. Keep up the good work, bookmarked and referred a few friends.

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