Making focus groups experiential: Why and how

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They say there’s no substitute for experience. Andy Barker, qualitative director at customer insight agency Engage Research, explains how adding an experiential dimension to focus groups can transform the insights gained.

Brands have been using focus groups for many years to enable them to access sources of potentially rich qualitative data about their brand and their products. They remain a staple for marketers to determine what a group of customers may feel about an existing or potential product or service, enabling them to secure insights in an informal and flexible way, often viewed by the brand team through a one-way mirror.
Though just because they remain a staple, doesn’t mean they cannot be improved or that developments to the focus group concept can’t be made to deliver higher quality insights. And it has been demonstrated that turning classic focus group research into an “experiential event” can create a more engaging experience for both brand and consumer, yielding significantly enhanced results as a consequence. 
This approach has been used in a number product categories from food to media, with one recent example being a project for a TV channel. The session was positioned as a viewer 'event' and an 'experience', rather than a research project. We chose to build the event and experience around what the TV company had to offer – its studios, the cameras, the presenters, etc. As a result, unusually, there was no cash incentive - the incentive was the experience and a 'take-home' DVD of each person’s one-to-one interview with one of the station’s anchor presenters.
An on-set group discussion was created around the TV news desk. It was ensured that the session involved staff-viewer mingling, multiple camera angle filming, a giant stimulus wall of TV monitors, moderator direction from the control room by earpiece, one-to-one interviews by the news anchor...and make-up. This initiative was all about utilising the features and assets particular to that client or sector and using these as a 'pull mechanism' to attract and connect with its customers.
The viewers were brought into the studio early on the day of the session and given time over breakfast to network among themselves and with the client’s staff. By establishing a relationship with participants before the session by phone and by email, we had already ensured that the team had pre-bonded with participants. This networking session then enabled them to bond with each other and therefore hit the ground running when they were taken ‘on set’ for the actual group session. But they were deliberately not left alone. Client staff mingled with them to ensure that the insight process began before the discussion to add even more value to the day.
Respondents were taken away one by one to have microphones fitted and then off to make-up for camera and lighting, not something that these serious, mainly business people would normally be doing on a Thursday morning! Then they were taken into the studio and gathered around the news desk on set for the focus group session.
One of the advantages of being in a television studio was the quality of filming. The group was filmed from multiple angles which created great footage for the client, providing the same quality recorded output as guests being interviewed on air. However, you can engineer a similar approach irrespective of your business sector. 
During the session the production gallery became a viewing facility for senior client staff who watched as the session unfolded. Not only were they able to digest insights as they happened, but they could also feed additional questions and probes to the moderator via an ear piece without disrupting the flow of the group.
Following the group discussion, respondents gathered with senior client staff for lunch and an informal Q&A. The following session involved one-to-one interviews with the lead news anchor so we collected participants from lunch, one at a time and positioned them on a stool next to the anchor and directly in front of the video wall. Again, these were filmed and this element of the project provided great show reel content for the advertising sales team (as well as a memorable “gift” for participants).
The ALIVE approach
The initiative reached every corner of the client organisation and created a real buzz within the building. It positioned the customer at the heart of the business and provided invaluable insights into how its viewers (its customers) use the TV channels and what they would like to see more/less of. In this client’s case, the business buzzed before, during and after the session and significant decisions were made almost immediately, based on hearing direct feedback from viewers, in a form and with a depth that was enhanced by the process used.
From a research standpoint, this approach does not require anything as fancy as a TV studio to be successful; in fact it can work anywhere, for any business, in any category. We recommend that as a starting point, you adopt a simple thought process, which we call ALIVE - a way of bringing classic qualitative research to life:
  • A is for Attitude: create a “co-creative” attitude amongst all stakeholders – tell consumers what the issues are so that they can help address them.
  • L is for Location: think about your venue; is there an unusual venue we can use; can you invite people to your offices, give them access to senior executives. Is there a way to enhance the space or dress the room to create more theatre.
  • I is for Interaction: a real success factor of these “events” is the direct interaction between client teams and consumers – great for client teams because they get to ask questions immediately, observe people up close and personal and also answer questions to move the process along; great for consumers because they feel valued and included and their curiosity about who is behind their favourite products is satisfied.
  • V is for Vibe: the process needs to be generally dynamic and energy levels maintained, but there should be room for moments of calm reflection and individual feedback – these events allow us to change pace and style of task as appropriate.
  • E is or Energiser: we always conduct a whole group energiser to kick off the session. This can be a simple meet and greet or five minutes of “speed dating” where all client team members and respondents get a chance to say hello and introduce themselves before the sessions starts.
The hypothesis of these experiential sessions is that the experience of being brought to the heart of a business enhances consumer engagement and produces a better level of insight than would otherwise be obtained from more classic research techniques - and results prove this case.
In the TV example, participants said they loved it, felt more engaged and involved and said they had given a deeper and more authentic contribution as a result. One said that they felt they were “influencing the business in a far more meaningful way than in other typical research formats because it gets you really engaged, out of the mode of "I’m participating in research’". You can’t really ask for more than that.
Andy Barker is qualitative director at customer insight agency Engage Research.

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