3 Tips for a Successful Product Focus Group

In a previous post I talked about how MakeStickers.com used a focus group to learn what people think about our custom stickers, as well as the stickers from other places. Here are a few tips to make sure your focus group is successful.

1. Don't let them know who you are

You might be tempted to bring people into your company's office, or use your customers as a recruiting pool, but you risk missing a lot. Don't get me wrong, you should always be getting feedback from customers, but the whole point of this exercise is to understand how people perceive your product compared to your competition.

In any populated area you can find a company that provides facilities for focus groups as well as a pool of subjects to use. That's exactly what we paid a few thousand dollars for - a facility and staff to recruit and pay participants. When people came in, I just introduced myself as "Adam" and told them we'd be talking about stickers today. For all they knew, I was just a guy who worked at the focus group place. Which, by the way, is a great option to use if you have money available but nobody who feels they can facilitate a focus group. Most of these places will provide a facilitator for a (rather large) fee.

2. Do at least two sessions

It adds to the cost and time, but trust me, you can't risk only having one session. At the very least having multiple sessions is an insurance policy for when something devastating happens in the session. Suppose one of the participants in your group has very strong views and is very vocal. They could dramatically change the feedback you'll get from people. Any time there is a group dynamic, you must have at least two sessions.

Just to give a small example of what happens, I wanted to start out each session with a simple question that anyone could easily answer - just an ice-breaker to introduce the topic. So I asked, "Who here has ever had a bumper sticker on their car?" Now, I knew from the screener survey that at least half of the people indicated they did have a sticker. So how many people do you think raised their hand? None. That's right, they all sat there and looked at me like I just asked "When did you stop beating your wife?"

In the second group, I asked the same question, and hands flew up. People went on and on about their stickers - sports teams, school clubs, etc. It was a completely different response from the first group, and I don't have a clue why. That's how it is with group dynamics, sometimes (oftentimes) there's no straightforward explanation for how things go.

3. Start with an individual survey

Group discussions are great, but you want to be sure you get each individual's opinion before it gets changed or suppressed by the loudmouth in the room who tells everyone how it really is. We did a written survey before the group discussion. An added bonus to this is that everyone is well-prepared to answer your questions because they just finished writing down what they think. It's a great tool to use to get the quiet ones to speak. Just ask "So, Kim, what did you say was your favorite sticker?" She just wrote down her answer a minute ago, so she can't say "I'm not sure."

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How to better understand your market, product, and competition in one day

At MakeStickers.com we print millions of custom vinyl stickers each year. Yearly growth and positive feedback from customers tells us we're doing a lot of things right, but we're always careful not to fool ourselves by only listening to our fans.

There are other online custom sticker printers in the world (who shall remain un-named), and we know there are differences in the way stickers can be made. The details aren't important, but different materials and processes lead to a slightly different sticker product. We started to wonder what people like. We know our customers like our stickers, but how do we know they wouldn't prefer something different?

The good thing is that empirical questions like this can be answered through some simple research. We ordered stickers from a number of our competitors (taking notes and screenshots along the way), and set up a focus group. Each participant was given a bag of stickers, labeled A-F on the back. We gave a set of instructions, having each person compare the stickers while still on the backing, then peeling them off and applying them to a hard surface. Participants gave individual ratings for each sticker on paper, and then discussed the pros and cons of each sticker as a group.

We did something similar using our website and competitors' websites.

While facilitating the focus group, we never told the participants which company we were from, so the information we collected was completely unbiased.

For about $2,500 and a day of time on the focus group, we obtained extremely valuable information. It was encouraging to see how much our stickers were preferred, but it was even more valuable to learn about the few negative aspects that some people mentioned.

We learned that what makes a sticker good to one person might make it bad to another, but more importantly, we have some estimate of how those preferences break down among the population. And it feels odd to say, but we learned things that our competitors really would want to know about their own product (But we're never going to tell).

In a later post, I'll list some of the lessons learned and key points to consider to pull off a successful focus group. After doing one, the value is clear, and we're already planning our next.

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