The Dirt-Cheap Answer to Focus Groups

To facilitate a more authentic conversation, try a more casual approach to your market research.
September 18, 2012

For companies who can afford it, focus groups are the go-to way to uncover consumer insights, but are they really the best way to find out what people think about your brand? The view from behind the mirror can be hazy; too often it’s an environment that makes it hard for people to think and act freely.

At our brand consulting agency, we decided to ditch the focus group and re-create the way people naturally share information in what we call “coffee conversations.” We’ve used these to help our clients update their positioning, enter new product categories and even rethink how they communicate with customers. It’s meant to be fun and casual—more like a book club than market research. 

Here are a few tips to help you get started with this approach:

1. Get out of the focus room and into the living room. A windowless, sterile focus group room does not encourage spontaneous answers. Provide a trusting, friendly environment where attendees can relax and feel heard. A third-party meeting area will work, but we often hold them at people’s homes.

We start by choosing one participant in our target group, typically a friend of an agency staff member. Then we ask him or her to invite about seven to ten friends to a brunch. It might be young couples, first-time moms, college students or an active group of boomers. Note that a little fresh coffee and fruit helps provide just the right setting to start a good conversation. 

Unlike traditional focus groups, we always reveal the purpose of the gathering ahead of time to keep things authentic. We share our client’s name, the product category and the retailer we have in mind for the products. 

2. Uncover insight through honest conversation. Honest conversations emerge out of trust, so having the moderator be someone the group knows is critical. Agency staff members reach out to their own friends on Facebook and Pinterest to identify a moderator. These moderators are people with a lot of friends in the target market, so they can naturally help to fill the group with the right people.

Listen to what matters most to them. We held a coffee conversation for a children’s apparel brand, and instead of asking about brand likes and dislikes, we had moms talk about the amazing things their kids do. Since everyone loves talking about their children, the stories flowed and it quickly became clear that that kid's accomplishments often involve getting dirty. The conversation led to the product positioning, “What Amazing Kids Wear, Everyday.” It speaks to what matters to moms and distinguishes the clothing brand from competitors.

3. Assign fun homework to uncover consumer passions. To find out what consumers really love, we’ll often give them a fun exercise before a coffee conversation. A recent one focused on Millennials was for a beauty brand that wanted to move into fashion products and potentially other categories, too. We told the group, “Don’t tell me, show me,” and asked them to tear things out of magazines that represented product areas where the brand could expand.

These young women showed up with magazine pages as well as real product packaging and even snap shots of what was inspiring to them. We hung all the images on the wall for discussion. Surprisingly, the talk eventually turned to food and nutrition, and when we really started listening, we found that these young women had tapped deep into the brand’s global DNA to offer unexpected product ideas for flavored water and healthy power bars.

4. Ask questions from an emotional angle. In keeping with the example about moms, we find more success when we focus on what mom wants to achieve—for herself, her family and her child—than when we talk about brands. Define these more universal needs and desires and then work back to the brand.

If you ask most moms if they’re influenced by brand names when buying kids’ clothes, for example, they’ll immediately tell you no. We all like to think we’re discerning enough not to pay extra for a designer label. But try phrasing the question differently, “How do you feel when your child leaves for school looking great?” That same mom’s face will light up, and you’ll be closer to finding out the true answer to your question.

For a line of baby carriers, we actually conducted a coffee conversation with a group of moms using the carriers on their way to drop their older kids off at school. Within this context, the moms were able to tell us the importance of comfort—as opposed to fashion—in choosing a carrier.

5. End on a high note. Who doesn’t love a goodie bag? At a coffee conversation, part ways with consumers on a high note. Gifts cards (especially for a target group of shoppers), cash or gifts all work well. These serve as both a thank you and an incentive for future participation.

The answers you get from 10 friends in a coffee conversation are quite likely to be confirmed by as many as 500 consumers. Why? Because the answers you receive are truthful, transparent, non-rehearsed and are more likely to yield a representative sample than other more distant conventional methods. 

OPEN Cardmember John Parham is president and director of branding at Parham Santana, the Brand Extension Agency. He has spent the past 25 years developing big picture strategies for his client’s branding, licensing and seasonal programs. He also contributes to Parham Santana’s Extendonomics blog, which covers the latest brand extension news, trends and best practices.

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