Recently, I had the opportunity to attend several focus group sessions. The goal of these sessions was to select a brand position and a creative direction for a new campaign for one of our clients. I was excited to attend because as the art director, I typically work behind the scenes — brainstorming, concepting, designing, presenting, etc. — so it’s not every day that I get to see someone’s raw reaction to my work, and to hear their immediate impressions (positive or negative). Plus, I heard there would be unlimited M&Ms to snack on.

What to expect at your focus group

The focus group sessions were fascinating. You may be surprised to hear that they’re a lot like the focus groups you see on TV: diverse groups of people in a brightly lit room with blank walls, and of course, the telltale one-way mirror. As the moderator greeted the participants before sitting at the head of the table, it was easy to feel their uneasiness about sitting in a room with a group of strangers. This feeling was amplified by the fact that everyone knew they were expected to speak their minds honestly on various subjects. And our group certainly did not shy away from giving their honest opinions. There I was, the girl sitting behind a mirrored wall (with several of my fine coworkers), snacking as if it were my last meal, and taking in all their feedback. 

The moderator began with introductions and the assurance that anything said was neither stupid, nor wrong. The participants were encouraged to speak truthfully and say whatever came to mind, even if it could be contrary to the rest of the group. The moderator then presented five creative concepts; he read headlines and supporting body copy, and showed visuals that represented print ads. The groups discussed the concepts — their likes and dislikes, perceptions, and associations. Their honesty was a bit of a shock, and there were a few times that I wanted to jump through the mirror and justify design decisions, or explain why certain language was used, but I restrained myself. Once I overcame that urge, I realized that this was a unique opportunity to listen closely, and really absorb that raw response. 

The real value of focus groups

It was very interesting to watch people take words, images, or even colors, and create associations to institutions, places, or people. I didn’t always agree with them, but there was often truth in what they were saying. If I had created 500 ads, I bet I would have received 500 reasons why someone didn’t like them. But in a focus group setting, the customer is always right; after all, it is a completely subjective response that we want to hear. So, it’s important not to take things personally. It is essential to really listen to these groups, because everything is valid when it comes to perception.

Speaking of perception, one major takeaway from the focus group sessions is that attention spans are changing (more drastically than I’d like to admit). We have shorter attention spans, and even less patience. Some people think videos over 30-seconds are too long, and others express a preference for print ads with zero body copy. During our groups, I repeatedly heard, “Give me one image and one headline, and I’ll look up the rest of the information if I’m interested.” The belief that “less is more” is alive and well: busy concepts or wordier print ads were too overwhelming for some groups. As one member said, “I wouldn’t even look at that.” The truth hurts sometimes, but not in this case. The “less is more” feedback should not be overlooked… if it is, it could mean losing your audience altogether. 

Recognize that you don’t know as much as you think you do

These groups were an important reminder that my peers and I do not always represent our target audiences, so we need to get into the minds of those we’re speaking to — and sometimes the only way to do that authentically is to go directly to the source. It’s even more important for brands to do this. Often they are so close to their own beliefs about their brand that they are unable to see themselves the way their audience sees them. And that can lead to a serious disconnect in communication between brand and audience. Oftentimes this is what makes the juice worth the squeeze. There is both a time and monetary investment involved in focus group testing, but what you take away from them makes a focus group invaluable.

Focus group experiences are eye-opening and unique opportunities to get feedback from people from all walks of life and help us guide work in the future. This of course, is why it’s important to believe in the value of focus groups for your organization. I swear they don’t hurt as much as you think (and the M&Ms help ease the pain).