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Test Your New Product Concepts

Focus Groups Offer Unique Advantages

A focus group participant is pleasantly surprised by a new product shown revealed for the first time

The vice president of marketing for a major bioresearch supply company (with annual sales well in excess of $1.5 billion) told me "Mike, before I spend all the money to launch our new product, I want to see the look in our customers' eyes when they see our product for the first time. I want to see astonishment and delight before I spend a million dollars to introduce this to the market".

This is the kind of situation that calls for a focus group. Nothing else captures the up close and personal face to face interaction.of a focus group.

But, it is not an easy thing to conduct a great focus group.

It takes a good budget, good planning, a lot of experience, and a great moderator to achieve.

Compared with other types of market research, focus groups are intensive but with relatively small numbers of participants. You are working with small groups, perhaps 10-12 participants at a time, and for several hours.

You can't do just one focus group. Each focus group is different. A focus group has, simultaneously, an individual component and a group component. A poorly-moderated focus group allows dominant personalities to influence events. The best way to assure that the results were not decided by one loud voice is to repeat the effort with multiple focus groups. Hence the need for a good budget. Focus groups conducted on a austere budget may be worse than no focus group at all.

And an excellent moderator is a major key to success. The moderator helps each participant feel at ease, and helps them to find their voice. At the same time, the moderator makes sure that the strong personalities don't run rampant throughout the session.

It is important to capture all the group thoughts in a focus group. We use a dedicated scribe who is busy copying thoughts down on a flip chart or overhead projector throughout. Having a dedicated scribe allows the moderator to focus his attention on the group interactions taking place and making sure things run smoothly.

But, it is equally important to capture all the individual thoughts at the same time. We have pads of paper at each participants station and we will ask participants to answer a question individually first and write their answers down and then we will go through and have each participant describe their thoughts for the group flip charts. We capture the group consensus as well as the individual comments. And we make sure we collect the individual pages before we move on to the next question.

We find that lab people are smart and suspicious of being treated like lab animals, so we don't use dedicated focus group meeting rooms with their oneway mirrors. Instead, we seek permission to hold the focus group at an institution or at a business hotel nearby. We openly record the meetings, always by audio tape and frequently by video. We find it is much easier to be open about the purpose of the recordings and to have it visible than to try to keep it secret. If a few members of the client company need to be present, we have them sit silently in chairs along one wall, in full view of the participants. In order to ensure the recordings of the focus group are flawless, we use a dedicated videographer throughout to ensure no one knocks a camera off-center, or that a tape runs out and is not replaced. And, we use at least two independent cameras to capture the faces on each side of the conference table, with a number of omni-directional microphones placed down the center of the tables to capture the conversations.

Armies march on their stomachs - and focus groups do as well. The best (and sometimes the only) way to get people to and keep them at a focus group is to feed and water them well. For efficiency, we will often schedule multiple back-to-back focus groups at the same location. This enables us to spread the setup time and costs over several focus groups. We will sometimes run the first focus group offering hot buffet breakfasts, the second offering coffee and pastries, and a third offering lunch. Again, this takes planning and a good control of timing. Things run much more smoothly with a dedicated runner avaialable to make calls, check with the catering staff to advance or delay the meal, and deal with the other unexpected events that can cause havoc if not dealt with at the time.

And finally, we use a dedicated registrar at the focus group. This person keeps firm control of the focus group incentives for the day, signing participants in at the beginning of the event and making sure that each participant receives and signs for their incentive check at the completion of the meeting. The registrar also handles the unexpected, such as trying to fit in the participant who is late and might be interested in attending a later focus group the same day.

In conclusion, a typical focus group project might involve 3 or 4 focus groups being conducted virtually back-to-back on a single day and might involve 3 or 4 distinct locations on subsequent days, for a total of perhaps 12 focus group meetings, each with a average attendance of 12 participants. As such, we would be able to collect individual reactions and thoughts from 144 participants and the group consensus from 12 different groups over a one week or a one and a half week period. It would occupy 5 full-time staffers from our company and perhaps one or two additional staff members from the client company to present the new product, answer technical questions etc. The deliverables would include a written report analyzing the data that had been collected and recommendations. The deliverables would also include those invaluable audio and video recordings - so that stakeholders could see for themselves whether participants lit up with joy at the sight and thought of the new product under discussion - or remained entirely unmoved.

About the Author

Michael Eby is the founder of PhorTech International, one of the leading market research firms covering the bioresearch industry. With more than a three-decade background in product management, marketing, advertising, strategic planning, and market research, he understands the need for accurate market information and has developed many of the methodologies his company relies upon today.

© 2011 PhorTech International

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