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Maximize Effectiveness to Prevent Focus Group Extinction

Biologists recently released a rare Florida panther back into the wild, after it had been raised in captivity ever since it was a kitten. With about 160 animals remaining, these panthers are near extinction. The article described how the biologists are using new tools and techniques to try to rescue the panther population.

Speaking of extinction, there’s been a lot of debate about whether focus groups are disappearing, particularly as related to innovation. Lots of people in the innovation and insights world say they think focus groups are useless. However, we at Ideas To Go believe there’s a way to rescue the value you can get from focus groups. It just takes an injection of new thinking into how and why you do them.

Use them for the right purpose. 

Focus groups are poor vehicles for creating new ideas, so don’t expect a series of focus groups to result in breakthrough new thinking. The odds of that happening are extremely low. They’re not designed for it, the environment isn’t conducive to it, and typical focus group moderators don’t know how to elicit it.

Unfortunately, focus groups do make it all too easy to kill ideas. It’s simple to say, “The groups didn’t like the idea, so it shouldn’t move forward.” This is a misuse of the research, because killing an idea based on a couple of focus groups is the lazy way out. If you know the idea offers a real benefit, then killing it prematurely doesn’t make sense.

So, if focus groups shouldn’t be used to either create idea or kill ideas, what should they be used for? The answer is, to learn more about your ideas.   

Use them to extract all the understanding about your concepts that you possibly can. With that learning, you can then optimize the ideas you already have, or create other ones that do a better job of serving the customer’s need. ITG Facilitator Adam is famous for regularly proclaiming, “Test the edges!” Meaning, test some concepts that you know are outliers. The concepts that are strongly polarizing give you the most learning. When people are passionate about an idea, either positively or negatively, you’ll learn more than if they yawn when they hear the idea. 

Give the participants the right tools.

If you do this, they’re better able to help you. Almost no one can spontaneously come up with ideas for improving a concept without some kind of stimulus. So don’t expect focus group participants to be able to blurt out the information you need without a little help. In our work, we often tell consumers they have a magic wand they can use to change an idea to make it better. Simply introducing this idea of something imaginary really sparks more imaginative thinking, and this helps the consumers help you more.

Give the back room a kick in the pants.

Most clients assume their task in the back room of a focus group is to eat M&M’s, take a few notes, and check their email—because no one has ever suggested or required that they do anything different. When we’re doing focus groups at Ideas To Go (AFTER we’ve done other consumer work and generated ideas), we give the clients in the back a very specific format to collect their notes and learning—and then we do live back room take-out. In the pauses in the front room action, a facilitator runs a series of brief learning collection.  We make a considerable amount of progress in a very short time in agreeing on what we’ve learned, what we might need to change, and what other ideas we should consider based on the learning. And, because the team knows what their task is, and how we’re going to use it, they engage more in what’s happening.  This results in better learning, and ultimately, better ideas.

So as you can see, focus groups don’t have to become extinct. They certainly aren’t the answer to all your innovation needs, but they do have a place in helping you learn about and optimize ideas. These three rules will help maximize their effectiveness so you get the most consumer learning possible out of the experience. 


Ideas To Go is an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

©2013 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ideas To Go

Ideas To Go is an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.