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The focus group has lost favor in recent years as marketers seek a more experiential process for gathering customer insights. Although it has lost some luster, the focus group still holds the potential for providing powerful, usable insights.

And compared with more-intensive methods, it is extremely cost-effective. In the current economy, in particular, cost and timing are more important than ever before. And, if done right, the focus group can add tremendous value.

The trick to moving it from something parodied on sitcoms to a credible research tool again is to change how we think about and execute focus groups.

The central problem with traditional focus groups is that they've become a fixture in consumers' minds. The result is that consumers have clear cognitive models of what to do when they're part of focus groups, which makes their answers sound canned and sterile.

Instead, providing a completely different atmosphere, staging, and set of processes puts the participants into a more-engaged, more-creative state of mind. When you change the dynamics of the focus group, participants think and respond differently, producing information that is much richer and thus more usable and profitable.

Preparing and Staging

Setting up the location for the focus group is pivotal to the success of this research format. Rather than relying on a conference table and a two-way mirror, focus on creating a more-natural setting to strike a balance between a living space and a professional space. One process uses two rooms: one where the "pre-discussion" occurs and another for the majority of the session.

In both rooms, the furniture should be soft and should foster interaction among the participants (think a mix of sofas and chairs). Traditionally, sofas are avoided in focus groups because the assumption is that they infringe on personal space, making participants uncomfortable, but the intention here is to disrupt preconceived notions of what takes place in a focus group, and participants typically become comfortable quickly. Their notion of what they are "supposed to do" breaks down, and they subconsciously see the opportunity to open up.

Floor lamps (not overhead lighting) should dominate the room, and colors should reflect a homelike atmosphere. Create the kind of environment that facilitates conversation, rather than one that is much less likely to encourage conversation, such as a corporate setting.

Of course, this approach also affects the sample size. The traditional method is to gather anywhere from eight to 12 participants. Changing the structure to a more-conversational dynamic means reducing the sample to between six and eight participants per session. Although the larger sample certainly puts more bodies in a room, it doesn't guarantee an increase in discussion or viewpoints, because that dynamic is not conducive to conversation. The smaller sample coupled with the change in environment fosters conversation and, therefore, better information.

Three Phases of a Focus-Group Session

The following three phases will help guide you through a successful focus-group session.

Phase 1: The discussion before the discussion

Before the primary conversation begins, set the mood and help people feel relaxed with a brief pre-discussion, preferably around a meal.

That is not just common courtesy. Human beings are hardwired to respond to the act of sharing a meal. In every society, gathering around food signals trust and intimacy, promoting honest, open interactions with one another.

By beginning a focus group around a substantial meal (not simply snacks), people are more apt to talk freely, getting them primed for discussion. This is also a good time to start informally discussing the main topic of the session.

Introductions, personal stories, and an overview of the discussion should be emphasized during this phase. If topics come up that will be revisited during the main discussion, that's fine, but the moderator should redirect the conversation so that not all the information is revealed early on. Allowing the participants to start talking primes them to provide more expansive, clear, and detailed responses during the main discussion.

During this initial phase, no camera is used because the goal is to get participants into a relaxed, conversational state of mind. By eliminating the camera, there is no threat of "performance," and participants become comfortable with one another and the moderator.

Since valuable information will no doubt begin to emerge at this stage, and since no camera is recording the event, it is imperative that the facilitator be a skilled note taker.

Phase 2: The main event

Changing the setting in the primary discussion area will alter how information is captured and relayed to the clients. There are no hidden cameras and no two-way mirrors.

Cameras are set up in unobtrusive locations and addressed openly when the group comes together. Information is then broadcast to the clients/viewers. Once again, the reason is to be intentionally disruptive to the mental model people have about focus groups. The disruption is interpreted as an expression of honesty, and the camera is quickly forgotten.

The truth is that participants in traditional focus groups are already aware of and performing for the camera, even if they can't see it; if nothing else, the mirror is a constant reminder that they are being watched.

Facilitation is done using a dual-moderator method: One moderator ensures that the session progresses smoothly, another ensures that all the topics are covered. Moreover, the dual-moderator process helps maintain the conversational tone by shifting the power dynamic of the group. Rather than a single person leading and everyone following, the second moderator (seated among the participants) breaks up the dynamic and redirects the exchange of information.

Opening up the information-exchange process means having an opportunity for more open and honest disclosure and discussion in a setting where participants are validated.

Phase 3: The follow-up

The final phase involves closing the session. Once a typical focus group is over, there is usually a bit of time when some participants linger and offer bits of information they felt weren't expressed clearly or they share stories with others. In this model, participants are actively encouraged to spend 20 minutes or so talking with the moderators. The first step is to turn the camera off.

The key point is that the end of a focus-group discussion provides an opportunity that is all too frequently overlooked. Keeping the participants for a post-discussion phase often captures pieces of information that were not articulated during the main discussion.


Changing the structure of the focus group can be uncomfortable for those moderating it and those watching it. It appears much less structured than traditional methods because the focus is getting the target audience to open up and give real answers, not perform for the camera.

Remember, put participants in a state of mind where they feel in control, so that they don't simply tell the moderators what the moderators want to hear. Changing the format to a more relaxed, expansive session means worrying less about data and more about generating creative thinking and new ideas. Giving yourself license to think broadly is the key to success.

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Gavin Johnston is chief anthropologist at Two West, Inc. (, a transformation-design firm that blends behavioral science and design to help brands in transition.