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How To Get The Most Value From Running Focus Groups

Image of photos of people‘Focus groups’ is a phrase that makes people nod wisely and worry about the extra thousands you just added to the budget.

They can be, and often are, a complete box-ticking waste of time.

If done well, they can save you from making an expensive mistake or even form the entire message for selling your product. If done poorly, you just paid a lot of money to sit in a drab conference room with a group of strangers for 90 minutes.

How to plan focus groups

1. Agree that focus groups are a thing

For a start, everyone involved needs to understand what a focus group is and what they’ll get out of it.

What a focus group is: a session held with a group of people who fit the demographic you think you want to sell to, in which one observes behaviour and collects cool little insights from them to inform your future branding and marketing.

What a focus group isn’t: a quantitative market research exercise. If you want to know that 80% of people buy chocolate when they’re unhappy, you actually need a survey. It’s also not a practice selling session. You don’t want to CONVINCE these people – you want them to tell you everything that’s wrong and right about your concept.

2. Prepare a focus group budget

Focus groups are very expensive things to do well. For a start, that’s focus GROUPS not focus group, singular. You’ll need to do several, to cover different ages and locations. Example: a 17-year-old isn’t going to volunteer much useful stuff if they’re sat next to a 50-year-old.

The best way to approach this is to spend as much as you can – choose someone who gives you good vibes and let them tell you how much they can do for that amount. This is the same rule I have for tattoos.

And whatever you thought your focus groups would cost? Double it.

3. Find your focus group agency

There are market research agencies in London that quote a flat rate per group, then there are independent freelancers working out of their homes who will compile the most customised cost breakdown you ever saw.

Personally, I would favour the one I thought was going to listen the best to everything I said and then tailor their approach to me. That gives you the best chance of getting genuine, amazing, lightning-bolt insight – rather than spending the least money to tell the CEO you did a focus group and then make up the marketing as you like.

4. Brief your focus group guy on your audience

When recruiting for focus groups, it’s quite amazing how specific you can be if you’ve chosen your researcher well. As I said, best bet is to do as many groups as you can afford, so you can break down your audience as much as possible.

Think about the age groups in your target audience: what cut-offs do you think they’d need so they felt comfortable in a room? What kind of job will they have, what family income, what level of education?

Where are your customers? If you target a small area, you’re cool. If your audience is ‘the UK’, you need to split that up into at least north and south. Maybe people in Yorkshire don’t buy tractors in a different way from people in Somerset – but you don’t know yet, do you? If you’re good at marketing, lots of this will be checking you’ve made good assumptions…with the odd blinding flash of surprise.

The person you’re paying to recruit your focus group subjects should be able to ask the right questions of you to get a clear brief, so don’t worry too much about planning your audience to the nth degree.

5. Make a list of all the questions you’d love answered by a focus group

“If an app claimed it could do your ironing, what would be your first question?”
“What would make you NOT buy self-shining shoes?”

Your focus group guy may not agree to ask all those questions, but they will make sure you get the answers through observation and analysis of the chat that goes on.

6. Discuss focus group stimulus

Usually, a focus group gets shown a few bits of media. This might be as simple as HERE’S OUR NEW PRODUCT WHAT DO YOU THINK. Or it might be as complex as introducing an opinion (like “I think cleaning companies are a scam – my house never looks any different!”) that’s designed to provoke discussion.

What you’re not doing is shoving all the marketing messages you’ve come up with in front of people you hope will buy your product. These focus groups are the step BEFORE that – they’re how you’ll craft marketing messages that are based on some real evidence.

When you’re close to a product, sometimes you can’t see the woods for the trees. A group of people with no stake and no months of late nights thinking about cheese competitors can give you the fresh reaction you need to make something truly GRATE.

A good format for focus group stimulus:

  1. Problem board: “I feel like ride-share schemes are dangerous”
  2. Solution board: What if there was a ride-share scheme certified by your local council?
  3. How it works board: We’re a new ride-share app approved by 350 local councils in the UK

Try two to three different problem concepts so you can see which problem resonates most with the groups. The solution board might vary slightly with the tone of the problem but the how it works board will stay the same: it’s the features of your product.

7. Agree the focus group running plan

Your focus group organiser should lead this. It’s likely to start with a bit of ice-breaking chat, then go into an exercise to loosen people up – like sticking competitor logos on a sentiment map. You might need to do some discussion on their current buying behaviour, even watching them do a mock purchase on a laptop so you can observe the pain points.

Your job at this point is to know what you want to get out of the focus group. If you want the answers to specific questions, tell the moderator so they can work them in naturally. If you want observations on how people feel about certain topics, trust the moderator to lead that approach.


Remember: in the real world, you won’t have people’s rapt attention for half an hour while you explain the product and the reasoning behind it. Don’t over-inform your focus groups. You’re not trying to sell them something or educate them – you just want their instinctive reactions to your headline proposition.