What Should You Do When You Get an “Aha!” From Focus Groups?


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I’ve seen it many, many times. It can be downright intoxicating. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that it ends up costing your company untold millions.

You’re watching a focus group and the light bulb goes on. Worse yet, you’re reading a brilliantly written focus group report—and then there is clarity. “Aha!” you say to yourself, “that’s it. That’s what I should do.”

Whether it comes as a result of an “aha!” or “eureka!” moment or if it’s just a flash of insight, treat such reactions from your focus group studies like the plague.

Despite my strong cautions to the contrary, a catalog client once decided to change its entire product mix because women in the catalog company’s focus groups said it didn’t offer enough high-priced clothes. A home improvement warehouse eliminated its fast checkout lane for professional contractors when contractors said in a focus group that they’d wait with everyone else if they could get a 10 percent discount on their purchases. A snack food manufacturer heard women say they wanted more healthy snacks and would pay more to get snacks with all-natural ingredients.

The results of all these moves were unmitigated disasters.

It critically important to remember that, in focus groups, what people might say and how they then might behave can be at polar opposites. Many marketers will forget this fact when they are faced with overwhelming consensus from a focus group study. So, take this as fair warning—if you are inclined toward committing meaningful sums of company money to drastically different but compelling ideas that emerge from focus groups, breathe deeply for five minutes and then lie down until the urge goes away.

The better course

Focus groups should be used develop insights and hypotheses. They can help to better define problems or issues, to explore alternative solutions and to provide fodder for more effectively deliberating on “what could be.” They are not a tool for determining wholesales changes that should be made to your products or marketing programs or for finding out whether a product or service that you feel will blow the socks of competition will really do so.

I’ve given this speech to clients thousands of times, and somehow it never gets through. This is what I tell them: “It doesn’t matter if respondents in your focus group jump up and down and toss money at you because they are so excited about doing business with your company. And it doesn’t matter if they sit there yawning, doodling or stone-faced because they are bored by the conversation.

What matters are issues that you uncover that might lead to greater success or identify eminently preventable failures.” Invariably, though, clients will start counting their profits if focus groups love their ideas or be totally depressed if they don’t.

What people say

In his book,


, Malcolm Gladwell calls it “thin-slicing.” For me, it’s simply the top-of-mind answers consumers give in focus groups.

Consider this interview:


The last time you shopped at a discount store for clothes, what was the most the most important reason you choose the store you did?

Respondent in a focus group:

They have the lowest prices.


What else was important?


I know if I go to that store, I can get in and out quickly?


Anything else?


There is usually somebody around that can answer questions.

The respondent is giving honest answers, as best she can recall. Price, speed and having someone available are what she remembers. Taken at face value, the discount store operators might conclude they should add more staff to quicken check out or assist customers.

Take a breakfast cereal example:


The last time you purchased a new cereal, what were your reasons for giving it a try?


I was bored and wanted to try something new


Any other reasons?


I had a coupon.


What else?


I read the label on the box, and the calories per serving seemed really low.

Taken at face value, the cereal marketer might decide to add calorie count to its coupon copy.

Perhaps the real reason the first person chose the discount store was an ad in a Sunday supplement announcing a close-out sale. Perhaps the other one chose the cereal to get a discount on an IPod with proof of purchase.

Respondents’ reasons may not reflect their true behavior, at all—because they don’t accurately remember what motivated them or because their behavior was done unconsciously.

What people say in focus groups are often the real reasons they behave as they do, but sometimes they’re not. It’s just the best answer they can give you at that moment.

—Robert J. Kaden

So, what should you do if you get an “aha!” from your focus groups? My advice is to feel good, assume you’re on the right track and then proceed cautiously. If you don’t get the response you want, assume you need to change your track before proceeding cautiously. In other words, don’t plough blindly ahead with an idea that seems great, and, conversely, don’t kill an idea that could blossom with some intelligent tweaking.

Focus groups are not projectible. For that matter, no qualitative research is. That means you can’t generalize the results. You can’t assume that what you hear from 20, 30 or 40 people in Des Moines will hold true for millions of people everywhere. What you do learn from focus groups are the potential barriers to success or the considerations to take into account in order to avoid failure.

I believe the problem stems from the fact that focus groups are the most intoxicating of all the marketing research techniques. They provide a direct, uninhibited, uncensored link with customers and prospects. There is an opportunity to observe first-hand what customers and prospects look like, to hear their tone of voice and to scrutinize their body language and facial expressions. But if you bet your company, job or marketing budget on what your groups say—and it works out—don’t be fooled into considering yourself smart. All you can do is consider yourself downright lucky.

That is, focus groups are a bit like Las Vegas. On some days you may win, but they don’t build multibillion-dollar casinos in Vegas because gamblers win the majority of time.

It’s great when you get sudden insights from focus groups. That’s the idea. That’s what should to happen. But it’s only a signal that you may have found something good. The next step should be a well-constructed, project-able survey that lets you know with certainty if you are on the right track or have simply uncovered the proverbial red herring.

I am often asked if doing focus groups is better than doing nothing at all. A client said, “I’m going ahead with or without research. I can afford to conduct a couple of groups, but if you tell me they won’t help, then I’ll just go ahead because I have a gut feeling this will work.”

If funds for research are limited, should an economical focus group study be conducted? Absolutely. Groups can provide a strong warning signal that what you think is a great new marketing, advertising or new product idea could be a waste of time and money. Focus groups can, indeed, send a strong stop sign. “Disaster checks” provide value.

But, that’s it. Euphemistically speaking, focus groups should never be used on “bet your career” decisions. They exist to let you explore options and develop new alternatives. They are no more, and no less, than a tool for motivating your creative juices.

So the next time you get a big “aha!” from a focus group, listen to that small inner voice that says, “Don’t you dare believe that … just go ahead and research the idea further.”

Bob Kaden
The Kaden Co.
Bob Kaden is the author of Guerrilla Marketing Research and president of The Kaden Company, a marketing research consultancy that works with clients in planning and applying research to make more money. He is a frequent lecturer and trainer in the areas of creativity and marketing research processes.


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