The other “focus” in focus groups

Much of the debate around the value of traditional focus groups centers on the discussion that happens around the table of participants. Left out of the conversation are the benefits traditional focus groups provide to the people sitting behind the one-way mirror – the team sponsoring the research.

Time to focus: In today’s world of never ending distractions at the office traditional focus groups provide an opportunity for product marketing and management professionals to escape their day-to-day responsibilities and devote extended periods of time to listening to, and thinking about, the marketplace. How many marketing professionals could realistically shut the door to their office—or cube—for four hours and tell people that they were unavailable because they were exploring the needs of the market. This opportunity is unique to traditional focus groups; when observing an online group or watching a recording of a group while at one’s desk there are simply too many distractions competing for attention – especially during the slow parts of the discussion.

Face time: Often when the team gathers in the backroom to watch the groups it is the first time many of the individuals have met in-person. As effective as conference calls, chat, Skype and other communication tools are, people generally appreciate the opportunity to talk with their colleagues face-to-face.

Shared experience: Listening to customers and prospects talk about their needs “live” creates a shared experience that cannot be replicated by reviewing reports and ideas back at the office. During the course of the groups team members have the opportunity to hear first-hand how their colleagues are interpreting what they are hearing. This often leads to debates and discussions that wouldn’t have happened in any other format.
Creative thinking: Due to the casual and off-site format of traditional focus groups, team members are often freer in their brain storming and sharing of information in the debriefs that follow the immediate conclusion of the groups than they would be in a meeting back at the office.

Action items: At the conclusion of the last focus group of a project the team typically feels a sense of urgency and develops a set of action items. Some of the urgency stems from the fact that the team just invested a meaningful amount of budget, time and effort into conducting the groups and is therefore motivated to show that they were worth the investment. The rest is driven by the enthusiasm that listening to real live customers and prospects generates.

Internal alignment: The process of designing the groups and research materials as well as justifying the budgets required helps align priorities internally. Nothing sharpens the team’s focus like external expenditures. In some cases the internal discussions that occur prior to the groups are actually as valuable as the insights the groups provide themselves.

Some organizations find the above benefits so valuable that they will choose to do in-person focus groups when another methodology such as an online group or telephone in-depth interviews would work as well and be less expensive. In other situations these benefits are not large enough to justify the cost or logistics of conducting groups. The larger point—at least in our minds—is that these benefits should be weighed and considered when debating the value of a traditional focus group.