What are Focus Groups? And how do they work?

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The bottom line: Focus groups are a controlled environment where ideas are tested.

Today, we hear a lot about testing. The new website is being tested to work out any bugs; a car company is testing the seatbelts in its new sedan (by driving it face-first into a warehouse wall); a raincoat is being submerged into a vat of water to test how fast it dries.

Testing can be the difference between commercial success and failure. And testing is at the center of focus groups. It is the opportunity for a company or brand to test its ideas and products with its consumers.

So what happens at a focus group?

A focus group is a gathering of 6-8 people to discuss a specific subject together. Moderated by someone representing a brand or company, the pre-selected group sits around a table to talk about their thoughts on a few topics that are important to the company’s business strategy.

The brands or companies are performing what’s called qualitative research - an exploratory methodology used to understand people’s reasons, motivations and opinions.

Still confusing? Let’s consider an example:

Let’s say you own a small coffee company - Frazzled Beans Inc. - and you are thinking about introducing a new line of chocolate-flavored coffee beans to your customers. You create a tiny batch of the beans and share the resulting coffee with your friends and family.

Guess what?

Everyone thinks it’s going to be a hit!

You decide to call the beans “Frazzled Mocha Beans”.

However, before you push the big green button and start rolling out industrial quantities of Frazzled Mocha Beans, supported by a multi-million dollar marketing campaign - you should probably make sure that the marketplace likes the new beans as much as your cousin Eddie did...

And so, you decide to set-up 3 focus groups in your 3 most important markets: Seattle, Des Moines and Atlanta. In these focus groups, you are going to test a couple of hypotheses to see if what you’re offering is going to help grow your business.

But first, you need to choose which kind of people you want at each group.

Because you’re a cool brand that generally appeals to younger, urban types you’re going to go with:

  • men and women of all races, aged 18-34, earning $30-65k a year, living in or near a city.
  • Must be coffee drinkers who grind their own beans at home, although do not need to be Frazzled Bean drinkers.
  • Drink a mocha / chocolate drink at least 1x a month.

And here are some questions you might want to ask them:

  • How does the coffee taste? Is it too chocolatey / not chocolatey enough?
  • What time of day do you think you might drink something like this, if at all?
  • What do you think of the packaging? Is it better with a splash of red next to the logo?
  • How much would you pay for a bag of these beans?
  • Would you buy these beans as well as your regular coffee beans, or instead of them?

Although findings from focus groups should never dictate a business decision, these conversations will give you insights into the flavor profile, merchandising, pricing and promotional strategies you may want to explore for Frazzled Mocha Beans to be the runaway success we all know is its destiny!

Bottom line: Focus Groups are incredibly helpful to any company that wants to hear first-hand opinions from real people.

So what do these “real people” get out of it?

Answer: they get paid.

How much can I make as a participant in a Focus Group?

Generally, you should expect to receive about $150-300 for a 60-120 minute session.

Make no mistake: your time and opinions are valuable. And if you’re willing to part with both to help a company improve itself, then you should be compensated. Fair’s fair.

What sort of questions will I get asked?

It really depends on the brand, of course; but questions tend to be about new and exciting products or features.

This is when the companies get to pressure test their ideas with real people, so you may get sneak peeks into the newest and coolest products or gadgets before they hit the market! It’s all very cutting-edge, so you will be sworn to secrecy! No joke :)

How long do Focus Groups last?

Groups tend to last between 60-120 minutes.

Since the groups are often held after school / work, there are sometimes snacks and water provided to keep the energy levels up!

Where do Focus Groups take place?

Usually in dedicated facilities, which you can find all over the country - particularly in large, metropolitan areas.

Sometimes groups are held in particular locations relevant to the brand. For example, a beer company may want to hold a group in a pub, or else they might be held at the client’s workplace or office.

The danger with choosing somewhere other than a facility is that you can muddy up the conversations.

Remember: the underlying objective is to understand the participants’ true feelings on a topic. So if they’re sitting in the Frazzled Beans office they might not be as forthcoming or honest with their answers. They will probably be more inclined to say what they think the brand is hoping to hear.

Instead of “this coffee tastes like burnt toast, I would never buy it”, it will be “hmmm, I think it’s okay; but perhaps not my favorite...”.

The brand wants to hear the truth!

How can I be a Focus Group participant?

You need to apply. And there is no guarantee you’ll be accepted.

This is because brands are looking for certain people who can give them relevant feedback - a shampoo company isn’t going to be very interested in talking to bald men…!

There are a ton of different categories out there - from Political leanings to TV viewing habits, from Home Improvements to Groceries. If you want to see an example of what groups are available nationally right now take a look here - National Focus Groups.

Something for everyone!

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