Focus Groups

Marketing Coaching and Focus Groups for Business Growth

We all know the trouble with focus groups when trying to get any kind of deep customer insights. Identifying and finding the right participants. Avoiding those who seem to do focus groups for a living. Then there’s coming up with the right topics and questions. Facilitating the group when one voice wants to dominate. Focus groups almost never reflect reality. They are, after all, an artificial set-up. Believe me, I’ve done my share of designing and facilitating them. You’re in a room with ten or so other strangers being led by someone you’ve never met before. Not exactly a great environment for opening up and baring your soul, is it? The premise and/or questions are almost always future-based, built on a set of “what-ifs.”

Do people lie in focus groups? Absolutely. Either from not wanting to challenge the group or the dominant voice to perhaps not caring about the topic very much. In his wonderful book “How Customers Think,” Gerald Zaltman notes that 80% of products that have been shown to and proved by focus groups actually fail within six months of introduction. That’s right – they fail! So, what’s a market researcher, marketing coach or business to do?

There are some very good tools that do a much better job to help with business growth than focus groups. Ethnographic studies, when done well, are excellent ways to gain deep customer insights. They’re usually conducted in the user’s environment with a someone who is trained to be a neutral observer. But full-blown ethnographic studies can be expensive. Either you have to have a very large market research budget to afford it, or you can conduct them only occasionally.

There is another set of innovative customer engagements built around the work of Luke Hohmann. These are called “Innovation Games,” which may be an unfortunate title, because they are more than games. They are, in fact, serious customer engagements. Yes, they do involve some fun activities with your customers and/or stakeholders, but they are built on solid research from cognitive psychology and organizational behavior. A trained facilitator engages the participants in a fun, non-threatening activity designed to elicit both their rational and emotional responses. The games typically last two hours and people are divided into groups of eight. The games utilize verbal, written, visual and nonverbal forms of communication, thereby providing greater volumes of information.

And did I mention they were fun? Consider the game “Product Box.” Customers are asked to imagine that they are selling your product at a trade show or on TV. They are given cardboard boxes, crayons, sparkle glitter, etc. They are free to make any kind of cereal box they want with any words or pictures they want. Think of creating your very own cereal box, with a key message on the front of the box, list of ingredients, benefits, etc. When the participants are done making their box, they are asked to “sell” it to you and to the other customers in the room. Most participants actually take great pride in their creations and make sure they take their product box with them when they leave. The depth of insight you gain is so much more than asking people to list the most important attributes of a product on a flip chart (that sounds boring even as I write it!).

Product Box is just one of many possible games. Which one you choose is based on the kind of question you ultimately want answered and what you will do with the information. Other factors in choosing the right game include the degree of physical preparation, customer prep required, scalability, whether you want a lot of open-ended exploration of a topic or have something more narrow in mind, etc.

I was so impressed with Innovation Games that I decided to become a certified facilitator. More information on Innovation Games can be found at

Check it out and promise yourself: no more focus groups!