Focus Groups Are For Fools

Exactly a year ago today I was in Chengdu, China conducting focus groups. It was the conclusion of a four country research study over six months designed to influence our 2010 product planning. This was the main quantitative research for a billion dollar product portfolio, so to say that the pressure was on would be an understatement.

Upon returning home and finishing the report, I ran into this quote in my Twitter stream from a very respected product manager:

We don’t use focus groups anymore because we get real time feedback from customers. Every morning the product team looks at best and worst reviews.

He wasn’t the only one taking the time to call out the traditional focus group as being antiquated – they are too expensive, too easily influenced by group dynamics, and too easily influenced by the moderator.  Plus Steve Jobs doesn’t use focus group, so why should you?

Customer can’t tell you what they want, right?

So, what’s a marketer to do? What if you have to make a lot of very crucial and expensive decisions now about the products you plan to sell six to twelve months in the future?  What if your target market is not in the thousands, or even hundred of thousands, but in the millions?

So here’s the thing, the research turned out to be very helpful and not only successfully impacted our product planning but also influenced our positioning and pricing strategies.  Focus groups aren’t perfect and are not for every situation, but in this one, it would have been foolish not to use them.

Here are a few points to add about what I think made them work in our case:

  • Prior research had been done to segment our target audience so it was easier to target participants
  • We worked with experienced, native moderators who could control the flow and make sure that all members of the group got an opportunity to participate
  • We assigned homework before the session to help with a last minute screening and pre-group insights
  • We spent a lot of time working on the flow of the questions to make sure that we captured a lot of general comments and pain points before getting into more specifics
  • We looked for problems, not for solutions

And most importantly, this effort was not done in a vacuum. It was part of continuing effort to gather data about our customers and increase our knowledge of their needs and wants.  This is critical since the market moves so fast that your data has a set amount of time before it expires.

Customer research such as focus groups, satisfaction surveys, ethnographic studies, and other tools all have pros and cons when it comes down to it.  Figuring out when to use these tools and how to apply the data is the real challenge of marketing strategy and product development.

Debi Kleiman had a great quote on the Dachis Group blog that I think sums up the importance of an ongoing customer research process:

It’s great that your customers can give you feedback on products using the ratings and reviews, and being alerted to their dissatisfaction on Twitter is important. But what if I told you that you’re missing the heart of what really matters to your customers? CRM expert Denis Pombriant calls this “CSI approach” to customer intelligence badly reactionary, and he’s right. How powerful would it be to truly understand your customers in a way that allows you to be relevant to them, right out of the gate?

Being ahead of the curve takes a lot of work but is also what makes the job so exciting.  What’s your plan to stay ahead?

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