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Effective Alternatives to Focus Groups

Julie Babb
Julie Babb
5 Great Ways to get the Answers you Want and the Data you Need
A typical focus group

You’ve got eight strangers, an empty room and some cups of water. This is the answer to all your marketing questions? Old-school focus groups can shed light on consumers’ perception of products or campaigns, but they’re far from perfect. In fact, this approach to research has a big hurdle to overcome: None of us are as self-aware as we think we are. What’s more, one outspoken person can influence the way the rest of the group responds, skewing your results.

“There are consequences to asking people how they feel or what they like. The consequence is, you’ll be led to a false conclusion, because making people think about their preferences makes them stupid.” Malcolm Gladwell

“Focus groups are tough because people are never as smart about themselves as you think they are.” - Anath, Part and Sum Strategist

trying to run a focus group with kids

Explore and Understand Potential Consumers

Understanding your customer beyond the boundaries of how they interact with your product is table stakes for modern marketers. We keep up on social media trends, read the consumer reports and hire them to help us understand them. What are their cultural influences? Media touchpoints? What are their biggest challenges? How does their world-view compare to other groups? The problem your product aims to solve - do they even have it? Are they informed? Do they care? The value proposition you have to offer, where and when and how does it fit in with their lives?  These answers are not always easy to get, but they are critical. And while a well-run focus group can still be valuable in the right context, it shouldn’t be the only tool in a marketer’s arsenal.

The good news is, It’s never been easier to collect qualitative data from target consumers across the funnel. Here are some techniques to try.

One-on-one Interviews

When your mission is positioning, nothing beats a sit-down. Casual, yet well-prepared for. Professional, but comfortable. In-person is preferable, especially if you can visit the subject’s home—you’ll learn a lot from observing their environment and the way they interact with products IRL. If that’s not possible, a video call is next-best (it’s more intimate than a phone call). You want to establish rapport and encourage honest conversation, but not a debate or exchange of opinions.

one-on-one user interviews

The prep: First, define your market (“middle-income men, married, who travel occasionally for work and vacation”) so you can screen properly. Then put out a call and offer compensation, like a gift card, in exchange for participants’ time. Allow at least an hour for each interview—and some may run twice that! Prepare questions in advance with a focus on understanding behaviors and perspectives. “Tell me about the last time you traveled on a bus.” “When you have to plan a trip, what do you do first? Walk me through it.”

The process: If you can, have a colleague take notes (and watch for body language cues) so you can focus on the conversation. Alternately, record the session so you aren’t distracted by note-taking—remember to get permission first. Remind the interviewee that there are no right or wrong answers, and that your goal is to improve the X experience, so they don’t need to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings by being candid. As you work through your questions, don’t forget to ask follow-ups as they arise: “Tell me more about that flight. Why was it so enjoyable?” Finally, be sure to avoid explaining potential solutions or leading the interviewee toward insights that align with yours.

Putting it together: Write memorable quotes on cards or sticky notes, and sort them by theme to see what emerges. Or compile video/audio clips for easy sharing.

Photo Diaries

Another way to get to know your customer is to follow them around... without being creepy. Most people have a camera phone and no problem snapping occasional selfies, so photo diaries are a great way to peek into their lives (literally).

photo diaries

The prep: Keep the research period short (a few days to a week) to reduce the risk of subjects getting bored and forgetting to capture data, and make sure your ask is clear and focused. For example, you might ask participants to document interactions with their pet for a week. Inviting participants in waves will allow you to improve your instructions over time. Don’t be shy about interacting with your subjects during the week: raise their efforts and ask follow-up questions as needed. At the end of the week, offer an incentive after a one-on-one review of the diary materials.

The process: There are apps specially designed for this activity, but WhatsApp or email can work just as well. You can also use a good old-fashioned journal if that makes sense for the project and participants. If you are working with a younger target, you can even have them create a private Instagram account specifically for your research.

Putting it together: Create visual boards (online or off) that depict recurring themes or any surprises.

User Testing

The secret to user testing is taking your ego and locking it away for an hour. Your job is not to defend your creative or product decisions. Your job is to watch the subjects’ behavior and interactions, listen as they discuss what they’re doing, and get ready to give your empathy muscle a workout.

user testing

The prep: Recruit 5-10 subjects in your target audience and plan to spend one hour with each person. Just like when you’re conducting interviews (see above), you’ll want a plan for note-taking or recording, and to remind participants that there are no wrong answers. If you are using a recruiting platform, your questions will be pre-loaded and you can sit back and relax until the recordings roll in.

Choose your level of complexity:

The process: Start by contextualizing the test (“Imagine you just got home from work. You picked up your kid on the way home. Now you need to make dinner.”). Present your solution or value proposition to each subject—this can be an actual product or campaign or a prototype. Focus questions on what the participant is really experiencing at every step:

Don’t ask leading or accusatory questions. If someone struggles to understand messaging or navigate to a screen, don’t jump in. Simply follow up with questions like “What did you expect that to say/do?”

Putting it together: Label screenshots and/or product shots with the most common responses. Highlight pain points and areas of confusion as well as areas that garnered praise or excitement. And don’t abandon the outliers—weigh them against overall impact or value. (If only two people missed the ‘buy now’ button, that’s not so bad… but it may signal the need for a second look, since the ‘buy now’ button is pretty important.)

Experts as Proxy

We love this technique at Part and Sum—think of it as a supercharged focus group. There are so many talented folks who have learned hard-earned truths about the behaviors and beliefs of your customers. With great casting, you can bring a custom brain trust together to validate and strengthen your ideas.

using experts as a proxy

The prep: You need a strong network and great meeting place to do this well. In addition to your own contacts, reach out to colleagues whose networks might be helpful. If your own workspace has limited space, you can find one-time rentals from services like Breather. Or get creative: Perhaps you know someone with a spacious office, or you have a friend whose restaurant is closed and otherwise empty at midday (remote can work too!). Make a list of the relevant areas of expertise that pertain to your project, then invite 1-2 people who represent each area.You’re looking for people who will bring a clear  POV on what you are planning, and who won’t hesitate to say what’s on their minds.. Remember: Your elite brain trust deserves to be treated as such, so make sure you have good food and drinks available.

The process: Share your core insights at the top of the session, then demo the product, campaign or value proposition. Facilitate the conversation to get both feedback and new ideas for your work. Invite everyone to consider the subject from all angles and to poke holes in your concept—this is another one where your ego needs to take a back seat.

Putting it together: Group feedback by theme or issue (cards or sticky notes are great for this), then step back and look for the big-picture takeaways, as well as the minor details. Which are top priority? Which are second priority? Which are “nice to haves”? From there, you’ll be able to map an action plan.

Customer Surveys

Sometimes if you want to know something, the best thing to do is just ask! Customer surveys can help you collect a lot of information about your customer’s likes, dislikes and behaviors relatively easily.

conducting customer surveys

The prep: Make sure your surveys are short, focused and clear. Questions (whether open-ended or multiple choice) should be straightforward and objective, so they don’t accidentally encourage specific answers. The easier you make the survey process, the more responses you’ll receive.

The process: If you can set up your surveys as individual/personalized emails you’re most likely to get thoughtful responses. We suggest trying a mail merge tool such as Gmelius.

For survey-making, find a tool that’s easy to use on most devices such as Survey Monkey or Typeform.

Putting it together: Most survey-making tools make collecting and exporting data easy. From there, the challenge is making it comprehensible and shareable. Consider making charts or simple infographics that highlight key results.

Extra Credit: The data is coming from inside the house! 

Many marketing teams don’t realize just how much useful information is sitting right in front of them (or in front of their colleagues, to be precise). Every day, customers tell you exactly what they think of your products, services and presentation via ratings and reviews, support requests, emails, phone calls, tweets, ads and more. So how do you get your hands on this goldmine? You have several options. Rotate onto the customer service team for a few days. Look at 48 hours’ worth of Zendesk tickets. Call the last five customers who took your NPS survey and ask them follow-up questions. Synthesize customer reviews from three random days of each of the last 12 months to see if there are themes you haven’t noticed before. Sit down with your social media manager and find out what kinds of conversations—positive and negative—are happening on different platforms.