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.

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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.