Imagine you were a fly on the wall of your customers’ home. Do you ever wonder what your customers really think of your company, your products, your communications or your CEO? Would it be useful to know what they like or dislike about your customer service, or your advertising, before you plan your next campaign?
There’s a way for you to be that fly on the wall, but in much more comfortable surroundings. It’s a simple research technique that we utilise regularly for clients that provides exactly these types of insights: focus groups.
What are focus groups?
Firstly, the set up: focus groups are small groups of individuals (usually 6-8), brought together based on a pre-agreed set of common traits or interests that is relevant to the client needs (for example respondents are all frequent users of a certain product, individuals with savings of a particular level, or have shared attitudes, concerns or voting intentions). Typically, we also group respondents by demographics, in order that they can feel at ease with those of a similar age/life stage. Otherwise, for example, a young man of 22 might not feel he has much in common with retirees and might contribute less to the conversation.
The moderator, one of the senior Message House team, facilitates a 1-2 hour discussion, typically including stimulus that can be reviewed, along with exercises designed to explore respondent attitudes and thinking on the required topic. Groups are usually held in dedicated viewing facilities, which provide a one-way mirror for clients to watch the groups unobtrusively (plus you usually get dinner, or at the very least, confectionery. Much better than being that fly on the wall).
Now the key question – why do we run focus groups?
Focus groups have most value in helping us to understand why people think and feel things, discovering what is really on their mind – aspects which are much more difficult to achieve in quantitative research. Their real value is to dig deeper and understand what sits behind respondents’ initial responses, so being able to get to richer insights for our clients.
This means that focus groups are a highly effective environment in which to test client communications and evaluate stimulus. We can test overall communications strategies, messages and the most valuable proof points, as well as advertising, branding and image development. We have used focus groups to test websites, giving individuals the chance to review stimulus in detail on a laptop. We can also review new products and explore what different groups (segments) within a clients’ target audience think of messages.
Evaluating communications messages is a core part of what we do at Message House. We have a variety of both qualitative and quantitative techniques for doing this. Focus groups are particularly useful when we are seeking to evaluate messages that a company, political party, charity or third sector organisation is seeking to communicate to key stakeholders and/or the public. There is scope within the groups to gain an unbiased response to potentially effective message themes, before using highlighting techniques to identify key proof points that are more and less effective as part of this narrative. Message highlighting provides a helpful visual ‘takeaway’ and the discussion surrounding the highlighting maximises the richness of the insights. Focus groups are also helpful when we are seeking to explore consumer attitudes to the future. It can be difficult to spontaneously imagine products and services that don’t currently exist. As Henry Ford said, “if I had asked people [before the invention of the car] what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. By focusing on unmet needs, visioning and scenarios co-creation techniques, we can design groups that will overcome these challenges and create an environment where respondents feel able to consider what might be possible and what products they might need in the future.
Depending on the research objectives, we sometimes amend the format slightly to ensure it is appropriate for the topic and individuals being researched. For example, we run mini-groups of approximately 4 respondents, which can be a good forum for exploring in-depth issues. A smaller group setting can be less intimidating for respondents who may be less confident/articulate, and ensures they have sufficient breathing space to express themselves. For example, we also do paired discussions, such as with couples, to explore their attitudes to money, particularly when it comes to financial decision making.
What clients can learn from focus groups
In a corporate context, listening effectively can often get lost in the rush to deliver new products and prove value. Observing focus groups can have a significant impact on a client, particularly if they have had limited opportunity to observe their consumers discussing their brand previously. I have witnessed consumers successfully summarise a client problem in language that can be very useful for a client as they seek the evidence to help them advocate a particular approach internally. Qualitative research provides a vital framework through which organisations can listen, evaluate and then refine their decision-making to end up in a much stronger place.
Focus groups are very impactful in their own right and often it is sufficient to provide qualitative research alone. However, we often – though not always – follow focus groups with quantitative research. The groups provide the forum for exploring, for improving, for prioritising potential initiatives or communications. The quantitative research provides the means by which we can then substantiate the most effective options – it’s the ‘what’ to the focus group ‘why’ and adds to the richness of the focus groups with numeric evidence. It can be a powerful combination to demonstrate the rationale for pursuing a particular strategy or approach for clients.
If you would like to discuss focus groups in more detail, please get in touch at Rachel@message-house.co.uk
Rachel Lloyd is a Director at Message House, focusing on qualitative research techniques. She has recently been approved as a Unilever Lead Researcher and Moderator.