Primer on Focus Groups

 

This week I participated in the Innovation Engine Accelerator Program managed by Ohio University’s Innovation Center. The program is designed to provide practical business advice to entrepreneurial start-up companies that are looking to scale up their product/service for market introduction. The topic I spoke about (at their request) was focus groups. The participants were interested in better understanding what a focus group is and when it is best to use the research methodology.

I had a great time with the participants. It was the first time I ever gave a lecture using the Google+ hangout technology. The group was together at the OU Innovation Center and I presented remotely from my home office. The technology worked exceptionally well from my perspective. It was a great experience and an approach I plan to figure out how to better leverage going forward.

Here are the main takeaways from the presentation.

Key Learning

  • Don’t use qualitative research to gather quantitative data. I was asked to reconcile why an executive from an earlier session recommended closed ended questions in focus groups to quantify responses and my recommendation was open ended questions to stimulate dialogue. This is a classic “use the right tool for the purpose” argument. If you want to quantify responses, use quantitative research methodologies designed for the purpose, and power the response numbers sufficiently to be predictive. You don’t use a screwdriver to pound in a nail. My market research partners at Procter & Gamble drilled this point into my head. So much so, that I believe if you try to pass off numerics collected in qualitative research as quantitative results to potential investors you will lose credibility. My counsel was to be transparent and help your audience understand the risk associated with your data by properly qualifying it as either qualitative or quantitative. Don’t ever try to pass off qualitative as quantitative data. And always share the statistical significance of the finding (although I also advocate using both an 80% and the traditional 95% confidence interval).
  • Strongly consider hiring a trained moderator and contracting with a market research firm to handle logistics. It is tempting to try and facilitate focus groups yourself to save money, but a trained moderator will ensure you get quality input from every participant. That will maximize the value of the focus group to your decision-making. Based on my online research a typical focus group, including a moderator, will cost around $5,000 a session. Although, I’d love additional perspective around whether this number is too high or too low.
  • Focus groups are only as good as the degree to which participants reflect your target audience. If you cannot get members of your target audience to participate in a focus group, then the information you collect will simply not be relevant. Invest enough time and money to do a really good job in recruiting, or reconsider the use of focus groups as your approach to getting information. Making decisions based on advice from the wrong (albeit convenient) people is illogical.
  • All market research is an aid to decision-making and not a substitute for it. The objective is to help minimize the risk of a bad decision. But, you still have ownership and the responsibility to make the decision. Never blame a bad decision on the market research. And, don’t rely exclusively on market research to make your decisions. There is a role for experience and common sense.
  • Participate personally. Interpretation of the input you get from a focus group is critical to its value. If you are going to use focus groups to help make an important decision, don’t simply rely on the team’s summary as an accurate representation of what was said. Instead, my counsel is to personally attend every focus group and be an active participant in the post group debrief. Your experience, and responsibility to the success of your product/service makes it important for you to hear the input first-hand. I would also suggest you consider inviting all key stakeholders in the decision to attend the focus groups as part of the client team. You will save untold time by addressing different interpretations while the input is fresh in everybody’s mind.

Discussion

What are some of the positive and negative experiences you have had with focus groups? How much have you typically paid for a focus group? How did you use focus groups to help make a decision? How do you decide when it is better to use a quantitative research methodology versus a qualitative one? What are your tips to ensuring a successful focus group?

Presentation

Focus Group Research

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2 Comments so far

  1. Keith Instone

    July 5, 2012

    Great introduction to focus groups. Were they interested in the many, many other ways to conduct research with users to help them understand how their product/service is being/might be used?

    Here is one article that shows the pros and cons and many other user experience research methods: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/user-research-methods.html

    I would be glad to help them find other speakers in Ohio and events near them that explain a wide range of user research methods. There was a great Midwest UX conference near them a few months ago, for example – http://2012.midwestuxconference.com/ – and there are lots of companies in Columbus with this expertise (but I am not sure of companies in Athens/nearer to OU).

  2. Robert Miller

    July 5, 2012

    Great primer on Focus Groups! You have succinctly captured in 5 points the majority of issues that product (whether it be CPG, services, communities etc.) managers and developers need to keep in mind when using qualitative (focus group etc.) research. I’ve read numerous books over the years on appropriate use of market research methodologies and you managed to capture on a one-pager what books take several chapters to accomplish, and you communicated it more clearly!
    Focus groups can be incredibly valuable learning tools for uncovering and bringing to life key important ideas and insights. This type of qualitative research is absolutely essential for developing early knowledge of the key issues and drivers related to any project. They further help teams to learn as a group about the different important issues related to their projects. Once these important issues are exposed, teams should then move to more quantitative techniques to establish the importance and meaningful usefulness of the various options. As a 30 year market research professional with a major CPG company one of our toughest tasks was communicating these issues. It is always tempting for folks to make judgement calls during the course of qualitative researtch. It is a chalenging task to convince folks that the primary purpose of qualitative research must ALWAYS be to expose ideas.
    Again, great information, presented very clearly. I continue to be a fan of the insights presented on your site!

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