Focus Groups: Marketing’s Oldest Technique Adapts To the Digital Age

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In the 1940s, a social scientist named Robert K. Merton of Columbia University’s U.S. Bureau of Applied Social Research was commissioned to find out how mass communication affected Americans during World War II. His “focused interview” technique soon transitioned from the world of social science into the business realm and earned him the nickname “father of focus groups.”

  • Chrysler Plymouth, concerned by low sales on convertibles, famously used Merton’s focused interviewing techniques to discover that wives, not husbands, were demurring from purchases of sporty convertibles toward sensible sedans. By targeting advertising for convertibles toward wives, the company both increased convertible sales and burnished its family-friendly reputation.
  • Betty Crocker similarly used focused interviewing in the 1950s to learn that women felt that only adding oil and water to a cake mix, without adding a fresh egg, made the process feel less like baking. Betty Crocker altered their ingredients to require the addition of the egg, and cake mix sales increased.

Of course, focus groups haven’t always been winners. Remember the New Coke debacle of the 1980s? It came about as the result of extensive and pricey focus group testing — and it was a massive failure.

For focus groups to work, you need to know what they can offer and what they can’t. This post is about conducting focus groups online — what you can realistically learn and how to conduct them in a cost-effective way. It’s also about ways you can move beyond focus groups in the digital age, using online resources to get smarter insights into what your customers really want.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Data

Digital analytics provide amazing quantitative insights into your customers’ online behavior. With quantitative data, you can

  • Learn how customers are using your product or website. In addition to finding out who your users are, you can discover which product features they use and how often they use them. On your web pages, you can use technology like heat maps to learn which portions of your web pages earn the most interactions.
  • Learn how customers find you. Data from sites like Google Analytics can tell you how customers find your website, whether through organic search, social referrals, or typing in your URL.
  • Learn how customers act in different stages of your conversion funnel. Find out at what stages you lose customers, whether it’s in acquiring subscribers, getting downloads, or earning purchases or subscriptions, and use the data to strengthen your funnel and increase conversions.

Where digital analytics can’t compete is in qualitative insights. These are the answers to open-ended questions, the things people feel about your products, the “why” behind people’s motivation to connect with your brand. When you understand the answers to these questions, you strike marketing gold — picture Apple’s “Think Different” campaign in the late 1990s, which defined Apple to a new generation of consumers in ways that still connect today.

At the same time, the qualitative answers you get from focus groups aren’t necessarily truthful. That’s because

  • People tend to overestimate their interest in products. When you’re paying them via focus group to be interested, they’re interested, but when they’re just living everyday life, they’re not so interested in what you provide. Millennial consumers in particular lack brand loyalty. Even though they may state a relationship with your brand, they tend to be fickle and eager to move on to a better price point or a better product.
  • Focus group subjects want to please the testers. Subjects want to prove themselves worthy of participating in the group (particularly if you’re paying them to do so), so they may appear more engaged with your brand than they actually are.
  • Subjects want to look good in front of their fellow participants. Moms may tell other focus group participants they feed their kids healthy snacks, but when it comes to making actual purchases, they buy junk food instead.

 Always take focus group data with a grain of salt. At the same time, don’t throw focus groups out the window, particularly when it comes to the top of your marketing funnel. When you’re trying to come up with something new or engage in rebranding, focus group data can be an important guide in your experimentation.

Advantages of Digital Focus Groups

While focus groups have proven effective for gathering deep business insights, many companies still hesitate to use them. Concerns about cost, study design, and the applicability of the information collected lead many companies to forgo focus groups and rely on analytics, anecdotes, and assumptions based.

Digital focus groups have several distinct advantages over traditional in-person groups. They tend to cost less, since you’re not flying actual consumers to a particular venue that you have to pay to book. You can also overcome geographic restrictions, gathering input from people all over the globe without associated travel costs.

Online focus groups, depending on how they’re structured, deliver added anonymity. When their responses are hidden from others, they tend to be less influenced by peer opinion. Digital focus groups also enable a larger audience sample size and empower you to make mid-test adjustments.

Online focus groups conducted without a moderator miss out on body language cues and conclusions drawn from audience dynamics. It’s true that sometimes, these conclusions are faulty, but at other times, they provide invaluable insights you’d never gain from quantitative data alone.

How to Conduct Online Focus Groups

Unlike traditional focus groups, which tend to take place in nondescript conference rooms, digital groups can follow one of several formats. Some companies use multiple means to gather additional data as they develop buyer personas and content strategy.

If you’re going to allow online subjects to interact with one another, a good moderator is a critical key to success. A skilled moderator asks open-ended questions, casting a wider net for additional insights. They can also seize moments in which participants make a profound statement and ask follow-up questions for more information.

Video Interviews

Customers can provide asynchronous interviews — meaning you send them questions, and they record whenever they like — or you can arrange a Google Hangout for multiple focus group members, allowing them to interact with both the moderator and each other.

Hangouts provide the interactivity of a traditional focus group, which also invites the weaknesses of the traditional focus group (e.g., peer pressure, desire to please testers, overstated interest in your product or service). Again, a skilled moderator is key to keeping the discussion on track and identifying opportunities for follow-up questions.

Online Surveys

You can use tools like Survey Monkey to develop anything from quantitatively driven surveys to open-ended qualitative data collection. Online surveys can provide insights into particular products, campaigns, new applications, or pieces of content. They can also assess brand sentiment – all with the benefit of anonymity, which keeps focus group subjects from being influenced by the moderator and by one another.

Online Forums

You can create your own forums using tools like FocusGroupIt, which enable you to invite groups of people to answer initial questions, review content pieces like PDFs and videos, and interact with one another, depending on the privacy settings you choose. Once of the best things about FocusGroupIt is that you can invite multiple moderators and observers to engage with your group; observers can suggest questions, and moderators can follow up with the group to ask for deeper insights based on discussions.

Of course, you can go beyond just creating your own online groups to inviting forums related to your industry to participate in your focus groups. Don’t just start discussions in these groups; partner with admins to get permission to survey group members. This step goes a long way toward building trust and developing long-term partnerships with ready-made, relevant research subjects.

Social Media Groups

Some companies have turned to Twitter, Facebook, and other social channels to gauge reaction to ad campaigns or new products from average consumers. Volvo, for example, created a Twitter chat specifically for the purpose of measuring customer reaction to an upcoming ad campaign. Based on initial sentiment, they scrubbed one of their planned advertisements.

You can solicit responses using a branded hashtag on Twitter or Instagram; on Facebook, you can form closed groups and recruit participants into those groups. As you engage in these conversations, don’t shy away from negative feedback. Instead, ask follow-up questions to determine why people feel the way they do about your brand.

Beyond the Traditional Focus Group

Many of today’s brands find it useful to monitor ongoing customer conversations rather than creating small-sized focus groups to answer specific questions during a specified timeframe. According to The Wall Street Journal, Seventh Generation formed an online group called Generation Good, which attracted more than 200,000 members. The ongoing conversations between group members about raising kids, keeping their households organized, and cleaning their homes helped Seventh Generation develop and design packaging for a successful new line of baby care products.

Clorox uses social listening to understand consumer sentiment. They monitored multiple online conversations in which consumers mentioned mixing spicy flavors and hot sauce with traditional ranch dressing. The conversations led Clorox to develop a sriracha-flavored version of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. Again, monitoring random conversation, as opposed to asking focused questions, led to invaluable insights.

Understanding Your Customers

No matter which format you follow, online consumer research has one goal: to understand what consumers want when it comes to your products. Because these wants change, keep the focus group research going, or keep monitoring online conversations over social media or in your own managed forums. And always compare your qualitative data to your quantitative insights to gain a 360-degree view of your customer.

Are you ready for deeper insights into the content your customers prefer and the page designs that turn visitors into purchasers? Let Digital Current provide an overview of your content and conversion strategies. We’ll help you amplify what’s working and invest in new opportunities to expand your customer base.

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