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How to use focus groups to evaluate your business idea

What is a focus group and how do you organise one?

One way of gaining valuable feedback on your idea is to organise a focus group. This involves bringing together a small group of people to have a focused discussion led by a moderator, in order to hear their thoughts, attitudes and ideas about your product or service.

If structured correctly, this can be an extremely useful exercise. Focus groups enable people to bounce ideas off one another and build upon each other's suggestions. The set-up takes the pressure off individuals to come up with a compelling answer, which makes people more likely to voice their opinions, and can deliver the type of spontaneous reactions that a survey never could.

However, there are limitations to this type of research. For a start, small numbers can sometimes lead to inaccurate conclusions about the viability of an idea. Likewise, there is sometimes a disparity between how people say they behave and how they actually behave.

To mitigate these risks, try to ensure the people you invite are relevant and representative of your target market. Also, try to run more than one focus group and use this as just one part of your market research.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of focus groups:

Objectives – What do you want to get out of the exercise? Focus groups tend to work well when you have something tangible to show (eg a prototype of a product, an ad campaign or logo) or specific aspects of your proposition you want feedback on, such as your pricing or sales strategy. Have a structure for the session to keep the discussion on track.

Questions – The value of market research comes from asking the right questions. What do you want to know? Use open-ended questions (which can't be answered by a simple ‘yes' or ‘no'), which aren't loaded (pushing people towards a desired response).

Examples could be: What would you expect to pay for this product or service? How would you improve on X? Where would you usually go to buy X, and why?

Anonymity – Leading a focus group yourself is a bad idea. You are emotionally invested and this will probably show, making participants less likely to voice criticisms. Give a clear brief to your moderator, and if possible film the proceedings. If you're looking for feedback on a new product, seeing how people interact with it can be extremely useful. Consider using a third party – You can enlist research companies to organise focus groups for you, and it's worth getting some quotes for this. One of the major advantages is access to a trained moderator (experts agree that the role of the moderator is crucial), who will keep the session focused, is generally an expert in analysing behaviour, and can help you to interpret the results. Some can source participants for you, and some enable you to watch the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror.

Environment – Encouraging people to speak freely requires the right atmosphere. Find a quiet, relaxed location where the discussion won't be interrupted, arrange people in a circle so everyone feels included and try not to make it too formal.

Finding the right people – Invite people who represent your target market. Ideally, you want people who are impartial and objective. Think about your extended network – reaching out to people via social media could be an option. Generally, you need to offer some kind of fee or incentive.

Numbers – There is no right answer for this and opinion is divided. You want enough people to  get varied input; but not so many that the discussion becomes difficult to control. As a general rule of thumb, go for at least three and no more than 10.

Use the results – No-one likes to hear their ideas criticised, but if you dismiss views that contradict your own then it becomes a pointless exercise. Instead, try to remain objective, take the comments on board, hone your proposition and seek further opinions and advice.


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