Companies, especially start-ups, have the intellectual capacity to churn out ideas for new products sometimes faster than they can keep track of them.  A focus group is a great interactive way to elicit feedback from a selected group of people on a current or future project your company is looking to act on. However, running one takes a lot of time, effort, and usually money—money that not every company has budget for. But, if your firm is considering a product test and you want to validate your idea through a focus group, here are some things to consider, as well as some alternative options to an in-person focus group.

Finally, we chatted with Bullhorn, a staffing and recruiting software firm, about their recent focus group that they conducted themselves for Bullhorn Reach, a social-oriented recruiting platform.

Benefits of a focus group:

Quantifiable results: whether its through a physical survey or a roundtable discussion, a focus group will provide quantifiable results that you not only react to, but can then act upon.

Unearth unintended opinions: more likely than not, you will hear something about your product or service that is completely out of left field.  Maybe it should stay there, but it also could be the missing key of what your product needs.  Make sure your group is diversified in order to cover all types of opinions in your session.  Remember: this is a much more of a listening exercise for the company.

Cost effective: especially compared with other forms of marketing research, a focus group could be a cost effective way of gathering users’ opinions.

Build rapport with a customer base: Interacting with potential users while eliciting their feedback on a product is a fantastic way to push your company’s brand.

Best Practices:

Lay out ground rules: your focus group will only last a limited time so you don’t want to spend too much time going over logistics or explaining yourself over and over.  Be clear and concise about what you wish to accomplish.

Record Session: having an audio or visual copy of the meeting will help you reassess the opinions gathered.  Sometimes moderators might be focused somewhere else for a period of time, causing them to miss an important point.  With a recorded session, the company can go back to make sure nothing was overlooked.

Provide comfortable setting: make sure the attendees are solely focused on the task at hand.  Establishing an uncomfortable meeting place will be distracting and could detract from the event.

Optimal setting is between 6-12 people: if you have too large a crowd, more often than not, a few dominant personalities will take over the conversations or it will be a free for all. Keep it small to maximize positive engagement.

Keep a consistent flow: do this by making sure the moderator is prepared and understands the questions and priorities of the session that is taking place.

Focus Group Alternatives

Online surveys: companies can leverage online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang to elicit feedback from their customer base.  Where you can gain in total volume of responses, your company might lose out by not getting the off the cuff real-time responses that focus groups could provide.

Enterprise feedback management: these services will help you manage data, analytics, reporting, permissions and workflows, queston/page rotation, quota management, skip patterns and branching.  EFM services also have the ability to integrate with CRMs such as Salesforce.com, HRIS systems, or other web portals.

Customer Feedback Management: beyond a simple online survey tool, customer feedback management tools can push out surveys, polls, voting mechanisms, open forums, management systems and more.  Here are a few examples : Get Satisfaction (used by Spotify, Foursquare, Mint.com and others to collect feedback), UserVoice (used by popular blogging platform Posterous), and IdeaScale.  Pricing is competative for all of these services.  An example of pricing from Get Satisfaction is posted on the left.

These are all incredible platforms that start-ups should consider separate from running a focus group.  These are services that will give your company constant and consistent feedback based on what is said about you.

Bullhorn: A Case Study

Back in March, Bullhorn conducted its own focus group for its newest product, Bullhorn Reach, a social-oriented recruiting platform. I sat down with Steven Duque, Marketing Manager for Bullhorn Reach and chatted with him about his experiences running the focus group:

Why did Bullhorn choose to conduct a focus group?

For over 10 years, Bullhorn has focused its collective efforts and thinking on becoming the global leader in third-party recruiting software. With Bullhorn Reach–our recently launched platform for harnessing social media to find and recruit talent–we realized we needed a better understanding of how working professionals evaluate potential future workplaces. As we expand on Reach’s features and launch new products, we’re certain our learnings from the focus groups will be valuable.

Did you consider using any online tools in addition to the focus group for your study?

Absolutely. Funnily enough, I used Bullhorn Reach as a way to promote the focus groups within my personal networks. More recently, we’ve started using tools like CrowdTap for market testing, and we’re exploring platforms like VideoGenie for user-generated video feedback and testimonials. And, prior to the focus groups, we used a variety of social media monitoring tools to listen to what real people were saying outside our focus groups.

What would you do differently if you were to run another focus group?

I would try to cast a wider demographic net. Our groups skewed a bit on the younger side, and we found that people’s opinions varied greatly, depending on their level of professional experience. I would have also liked to psychographically screen would-be participants to make certain we’re asking diverse personalities (in addition to other characteristics) for their opinions.

From your experience running a focus group, what would you recommend to smaller companies that are looking to conduct a similar study?

Provide beer, wine and snacks. Honorariums are great, but “in vino veritas,” making for a looser environment and less contrived responses. Also, prior to the focus groups, I worked closely with other members of the team to craft our questions. Their collective experience in product development, strategy and interviewing new hires made our line of questioning much more robust.

A special thanks to Steven and the Bullhorn team for participating as a case study for this article.

Have you ever run a focus group before or participated in on.  Leave your feedback in the comments below!