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Focus Groups Can Turn The Tide Of A Nasty Slide

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MY OPENING REMARKS ON SATURDAY MORNING, February 20, 2015, to a small group of business professionals were straight and to the point: “Boulevard Printers in Huntington Beach, California, owned by our host Jim Cavener, is on the brink of failure after only four months in business. As Jim’s public relations consultant, I’m here to moderate the group. You’ve been invited here to help find potential new markets for his printing business and hopefully save him from impending disaster. Are you ready to take on the assignment?”

Sound like a new job for the Mission Impossible team? It wasn’t. Cavener had opened his home to a focus group. Those attending included a CPA, a marketing professional, a financial planner, and a retired printer–people who could provide valuable insight based on their experience and skills.

I began by asking Cavener a series of questions to give the participants some background information about his business: “What services do you offer? Why? What’s the markup on each of these services? Who is your typical customer? What type of equipment do you own, and what are the capabilities of each? Who is your competition?” I then initiated a brain-storming session by directing a few questions to the participants: “What do you see as the qualities that give Cavener the edge over competitors? Are there any services he can include to enhance his present offerings?

How can he cut overhead. What new markets should he tap into? How can he stir up interest among these potential clients?”

A momentum began to build and a sense of excitement pervaded the group as one suggestion built upon another. No one was ready to wrap up at the end of the scheduled two-hour session. But when the meeting concluded at 12:30 p.m., Cavener walked to the lunch table with new hope, enthusiasm, and direction for his failing business. The group had not only provided suggestions for penetrating 20 potential new markets but also found ways for Cavener to turn his 20-year sales background into an asset for his printing business.

Like Cavener, more and more small-business owners are using these interactive brainstorming sessions as a research technique to uncover new trends, monitor customer loyalty, and assist in new product development.

“Focus groups can be as effective for small-business owners as they are for the large corporations, especially when these owners understand when to use this research technique and how to conduct a group effectively,” says Wayne Howard, owner of Wayne Howard & Associates, a full-service market research and analysis firm in Claremont, California.

Informal vs. Formal Although Cavener’s focus group took an informal approach, you may want to consider hiring a professional. The determining factors regarding your decision will be the importance of the issues involved and the affordability of services, according to Howard, who regularly organizes and moderates focus groups for his clients. For example, if the new widget you want to introduce won’t make or break your company, you probably don’t need to call on professionals. Or if you’re operating on a tight budget, chances are you won’t be able to afford a full-blown professional setup that can can cost hundreds or even thoudands of dollars.

Some professionals, however, will work with you on a piecemeal basis, such as providing only consultations, working just as the moderator, or serving as a participant recruiter. For more information about marketing firms in your area that specialize in providing services to small businesses, contact the American Marketing Association, 250 S. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL 60606; (304) 648-0536. The American Marketing Association’s New York chapter ([212] 687-3280) has published a directory of the names, addresses, and phone numbers of local marketers. It also has a section dedicated to focus groups.

If you choose to set up your own focus group, there are a few essential but simple steps you should take to ensure that you get the most out of the experience. First, establish specific goals for what you’re trying to achieve. For example, are you looking for feedback on a new product or service? Seeking evaluations of your business start-up? Or do you need help uncovering new market incentives? After you’ve determined the purpose of the meeting, develop a list of specific but open-ended questions for participants. Next, establish an agenda for the meeting. Your schedule should provide structure but be flexible. You don’t want to stifle a good idea because you’re watching the clock. For Cavener’s group, I allowed 30 minutes for introductions, an overview of the problem, and Cavener’s answers to the background questions. The next 90 minutes were set aside to explain the guidelines and to conduct the brainstorming session.

Picking the Players

Once your questions and agenda are developed, begin the careful selection of your prospective participants. Dr. Ivan Misner is the founder and president of Business Network International in Claremont, California, a company that specializes in the formation of business-to-business referrals, with 300 chapters across the United States and Puerto Rico. He started using focus groups when he needed to iron out specific growth and logistic marketing problems he encountered as his networking groups expanded across the country. “The effectiveness of a focus group rests heavily with your participants,” says Misner. “You need people who interact well with others, not overbearing people who always take over the discussion or overly shy people who won’t participate at all.”

Your group should include those with diverse talents or skills and those who are representative of your target market. For example, in her focus group, Mary Ann Payne, a freelance writer based in Ontario, California, included present clients and professionals from a variety of fields to help her find a niche. “My clients were valuable because they knew my writing style; others offered fresh points of view in helping me develop new markets,” she explains.

The number of participants may depend upon the location where the meeting is being held, the desired diversity of the members, and whether you’re going the professional moderator route. If you plan to stage your own group, Howard suggests that six participants is a manageable number for beginners. Payne held her eight-member focus group in a client’s office and ordered in gourmet pizzas, and Cavener’s group of seven met in his home, where his wife prepared a luncheon. Another alternative, however, is to rent a conference room and the pay the participants. Howard suggests paying $30 to 40 for two hours of their time.

The moderator of your focus group should be someone who can stay focused, keep the group on track, and draw out the less outspoken in the group. In other words, the moderator should be sensitive to group dynamics. Although some business owners can function adequately as their own moderators, others may find it difficult to remain objective and unintrusive throughout the session. Remember that the primary reason for conducting a focus group is to get ideas flowing. You don’t want your participants to feel inhibited.

Howard also suggests that you ask someone to serve as your assistant. “This person must act as the gracious host or hostess and make your guests feel welcome and comfortable. When people have warm feelings about a group, they’re more responsive in offering advice,” he says.

Running the Show

Begin by clearly stating to the group the reasons for the meeting. Also explain that you’re looking for a variety of ideas and that nothing should be thought too wild for consideration. (It’s easier to tone down ideas than to think them up. Quantity, not quality, is the important factor in a brainstorming session.) Keep your questions and comments directed to the issue but also be willing to investigate tangents that may provide insight into other possible problems or solutions. Encourage participants to build one another’s ideas. For example, with Cavener’s group, I asked partipants to bring their own experiences–be it as a professional, business owner, or customer–to the table when elaborating on one another’s suggestions and comments.

Use a flip chart or blackboard to list all ideas that surface during the brainstorming process. Then go back and discuss each one. This process is the key element to getting the feedback you’re looking for–suggestions that will help you effectively solve your problem. Payne’s group, for example, helped her find a way to generate more income by suggesting she de velop a new facet of her writing business–newsletter publishing workshops.

Misner offers a few tips he’s used to make his own focus groups run smoothly.

* Provide soft drinks, coffee, and snacks to help keep the session friendly and comfortable. Avoid serving alcohol.

* Seat participants around a small conference table. It helps to unify the group and allows people to communicate easily.

* Use samples as a point of reference if you’re discussing a product and supply copies of your competitors’ brochures, fliers, or catalogs if discussing a service.

* Take notes for later reference and evaluation. If you find this to be too distracting, use a video or audio recorder.

Evaluating Your Results Once your meeting is over, start sifting through this vital information and write down the most viable suggestions in relation to your specific business and budget.

In Cavener’s case we uncovered a market for preprinted forms and set up a step-by-step approach to how he could penetrate that niche. The group also suggested that he replace his present employee with someone more trustworthy and knowledgeable in the field of printing. Cavener would then have time to incorporate some of his old sales experience and make the necessary cold calls to potential customers. “If you want to succeed in today’s business world, you’ll have to be a good listener and handle constructive criticism well,” says Cavener. “Recognize your focus group’s advice for what it is–an opportunity to more effectively operate your business and reach new markets.”

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