Modern Day Focus Groups

  • February 19, 2013 at 1:49 PM EST
  • By Eric V. Holtzclaw, Founder/CEO, Laddering Works
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You and your team settle in behind one way glass as eight women file into a room, all about the same age, all about the same income and all with about the same level of education.  On paper, they look like they are “the same” and they fit the demographic your data tells you about who purchases your products.

As the evening progresses, the responses from these women is definitely not “the same.” Three of them like your marketing message, 3 seem undecided and the other 2 think it misses the mark.

You wonder: Is it the moderator? Maybe it’s the questions? or Could it be what you are testing? Thankfully, you have a second group — maybe you will get some direction.


Regrettably, the second group doesn’t help — you don’t feel any closer to understanding what direction to take with your new marketing initiative.

If you are in marketing, you have most likely participated in focus groups like those described above. Traditional focus groups worked well when marketers sought to “sell” a product to a customer based on what could be created by manufacturing and when mass media allowed the marketer to control the message to influence groups of people. When the message was controlled and the available product and product information was limited, consumers looked to others that were like them to determine what to buy. 

Today, when you put 8 to 12 people in a room to discuss a product or react to a marketing experience, you really have no idea “who’s in the room.” Just because these individuals may look demographically the same on paper, their internal motivations and core drivers for purchasing a product or reacting to a marketing message is probably very different.

In today’s many to many market, where consumers sort themselves largely by their interests and motivations, they have the ability and desire to make decisions on product purchases by vetting them through their informal and formal ecosystems. In this new world, conducting focus groups the old fashioned way, or at all, is a mistake.

Instead of spending time and money on focus groups, do these three things instead:

One: Use Social Media

You have most certainly been told to analyze social media before, but my recommendation is to view social media from a very different perspective.  Social media provides a fantastic portal into information about your consumers, but you must resist the temptation to look at “what” and numbers.  It doesn’t matter how many times your product or brand is being mentioned, what matters instead is “who” is mentioning it and “why.”  Analyze the profiles and look for key patterns in the descriptions provided by the consumers having the conversations.  Some things to look at might include:

  • What interests do they list in their profiles?
  • Do they talk about themselves?
  • How do they interact with others?

From this starting point, you can then work to understand why they are (or are not) talking about your brand and uncover the language you should be using to reach them.

Two: Spend Time In Their World

We all present ourselves differently to the outside world than we do within our own personal environments.  Spend time in your customers’ personal space to get a true feeling for what is important to them.  The patterns in customer groups start to emerge in 18 to 27 interviews (very similar to the number of participants that companies usually run through focus groups), but by spending quality time with a customer in their personal space you really get to know them. You will see patterns of what is important to them by reviewing their surroundings. 

  • Do they collect personal mementos?
  • Is their house neat and tidy or messy?
  • How do they interact with others in their home?

Just as Malcom Gladwell said in his book Blink! about the concept of thin slicing, I learn more about a consumer by spending 30 minutes in their house than I ever do meeting them on the street or talking to them in a pristine focus group environment. I can even begin to predict their answers to my questions based on their environment.

Three: Capture Them In Your World

Implement processes and deploy tools that allow you to collect information and understand your consumers when they are making the purchase or buy decision.  The best learning happens within this environment — it’s the most real. But think carefully about what you are going to give the consumer in return for their time or effort to provide you with this feedback and make sure your questions are surprising or deeper than a “Please rate your experience from 1 to 5.”  Consider more provocative questions like “If you had to tell a friend one thing about your experience today, what would it be?”

Forget the old school focus group. Spend your time, effort and money learning more about your consumers and looking at their social media footprint. Once you do this, you will start to see them as group of individuals, instead of as a group. You will understand what really drives the individuals within the group to purchase from you in a given context or situation. 

Armed with this knowledge, you will know how to craft a message or product that will resonate.

Eric V. Holtzclaw, Founder/CEO of Laddering Works, has spent 20+ years creating opportunities through the practical application of emerging technologies and trends to business. Eric has the opportunity to interview and understand thousands of people annually, and uses his knowledge of consumer behavior and laddering techniques to advise the world’s leading brands to prioritize strategic investments in technology, advertising and marketing for maximum return. Twitter: @eholtzclaw

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