Focus groups are a valuable tool to assess products and more

Focus groups were first used during World War II to measure the impact on shaping people’s opinions from mass media and propaganda. That work continued during subsequent conflicts. My dad served in the psychological warfare unit during Vietnam and he talked about the power of media messaging on people’s perceptions of what the military was doing. 

We certainly see analysis of media and messaging in hyper-drive thanks to social media and comments, tweets and videos going viral.

During the 1950s, Chrysler Corporation found itself unable to understand its sluggish sales. It conducted focus groups and learned, to great surprise, that it was the women in families who were making the car-buying decisions. Before this, all of Chrysler’s advertising had been directed at men. When Chrysler shifted its advertising focus to safety and convenience (rather than on speed), it increased sales. That’s the power of asking people what they want — and what they think!

Today, there is so much content online, and so many opinions circulating, that it’s difficult to cut through the noise. That’s why focus groups are more relevant than ever. Nothing compares to people sharing their opinions when you can hear their tone, watch their expressions, and analyze their body language. 

Technology is certainly changing how we can implement focus groups. It doesn’t need to be 10 people sitting in one room anymore. You can conduct a focus group with people all over the world using Zoom. Companies always need this type of information, but for a community bank, it’s best to draw focus groups from your target market, either prospects, current customers, or even a subset of customers if you want feedback on certain products. 

You can conduct a focus group any time, but there are some milestones where you should really consider it. If you’re deciding whether to do a brand refresh or change your name, that is a really good opportunity to conduct a focus group. Sometimes, you cannot see the brand as clearly as an outsider. 

If you are getting marginal response to a new product, perhaps a commercial loan, and you’re not sure why, that would be a good opportunity to have some local business leaders in for a focus group to find out why they aren’t responding to your offerings.

It’s always good to have a customer’s perspective. But you could even conduct a focus group with people who are not customers to hear the differing viewpoints. You’d ask different questions of customers (Why do you bank here? What has made you stay here for 19 years?) than noncustomers. Don’t you want people to tell you what’s kept them from switching banks?

A focus group might also provide an early warning about something negative people are thinking before it becomes a negative online review. It can be a good preventative measure. If a surprise emerges during a focus group, consider whether this person’s comment was shared by others, or if the comment was an outlier. If someone claims your bank has a bad reputation because the building is old, that’s an obviously irrelevant observation.

When conducting a focus group, it’s really important not to ask leading questions. Don’t plant perceptions into peoples’ minds. You also do not want to disagree or get argumentative or defensive in a focus group. Respect peoples’ opinions and try to determine why they feel or respond the way they do.

Avoiding conflict and keeping objective are great reasons banks should consider an outside firm to conduct their focus group. Another occasion to turn to outsiders is when conducting an internal focus group with employees. Having someone people don’t know conduct the interviews will help participants feel comfortable sharing their true opinions because they know their answers will be confidential. You have to ensure that employees’ answers remain anonymous. When focus group data is transferred to the bank, it’s critical that identifying information be stripped away. 

Lastly, consider compensating focus group participants. You will get better responses, and people will be more honest and open when they are paid for their time, because they’ll view it as a paying gig. And while you’re at it, throw in some snacks.

Tiffany Beitler is principal of Plaid Moose Creative.