A new season of Mad Men begins on April 7, and with it may come continued exposure to the critical role of focus groups in market research. Focus groups have become objects of scorn by some, bogged down with a bad rap for pitfalls like “group think,” dominant or under-engaged respondents, and participants a bit too eager to please. There was always a risk of getting stuck with a naysayer – someone who could potentially kill the mood of the group with a few harsh words and opinions about the topic at hand. This stereotype was hilariously parodied in a Saturday Night live (SNL) including Melissa McCarthy playing every moderator’s worst nightmare. Her outlandish remarks, biases, and questionable motives highlighted some of the challenges associated with poorly executed focus groups.

That’s not what I’m seeing at AnswerLab. Focus Groups are back by popular demand.

Illustartion of Focus Group from Mad Men television show

Photograph: Mike Yarish / © AMC / Everett Collection

Mad Men may have had at least a small role in planting the seeds in our collective unconscious to give focus groups another shot despite prior years of waning interest. In past seasons, the show has featured several episodes with Dr. Faye Miller moderating groups on topics from lipstick to cold cream, giving visibility into those early days of market research and quite possibly sparking renewed interest among marketers and product managers. Skeptical? Consider the fact that the series inspired a “Mad Men Collection” at Banana Republic, enrollments in Advertising/Marketing are on the rise in universities across the country, and martinis are one of the most popular drinks on bar menus today.

Back then – just as today – the products that really hit the mark were those that “spoke” to consumers, and they did so by using natural language and referencing relatable experiences. Some widely recognized modern examples include Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, Levi’s Curve ID jeans, and Cotton, “The fabric of our lives.”

So why focus groups, and why now?

Of course, it would be an over simplification to suggest that a popular television drama could revive the methodology, and I’m not suggesting that Mad Men or SNL single-handedly brought “sexy” back to focus groups. What is more likely is that the rise of social media and the empowerment of consumers to engage in dialogues with large corporations have created a culture where consumers expect to be heard. Now more than ever, companies are venturing into market research to understand their customers – and focus groups are one of the most accessible and simplest ways to get close to the customer.

But just like the cocktail dress of another era must be modernized to fit into today’s fashion, so too must the focus group continue to evolve to be an effective research tool.

At AnswerLab, here are just some of the ways we ensure we get great insights from focus groups:

    • Know when to use a focus group. Groups are best run in early-stage product development to understand unique use cases that the business should consider, and also to understand what barriers or motivators may exist that would either inhibit or support adoption of a product. Insights gathered at this phase should directly inform the product strategy. A great example would be understanding the potential for a “mobile wallet” – what does that concept mean to people? What problems would it solve? What new challenges might it introduce?
    • Keep the group grounded in real-world behavior with “homework”. Current behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Knowing this, one technique to facilitate a productive group is to include a homework component that asks participants to reflect on current habits and routines as a way to “prime” them for the activities they may do in the group. The facilitator can then refer back to these real world examples when asking participants to contemplate other scenarios. Using the mobile wallet example above, the participant’s homework may include questions about how they organize their wallets today, how they decide to use different payment methods, etc. The groups may then explore how their behaviors given a mobile wallet might remain the same. What might be different?
    • Avoid “group think” by using a combination of individual and group exercises. One of the most common critiques of focus groups is the risk of losing the nuances of individual experiences in the muddiness of “group think,” where a dominant participant or two could sway an entire group to passively nod along with their point of view. Using exercises that individuals complete (either in advance as homework, or in the context of the group) ensures you capture the unique perspectives of each participant prior to discussing as a group.
    • Don’t just talk – use role play or other interactive exercises to observe how people will act in “real” life. While dialog is obviously an important component of the focus group, don’t miss the opportunity to use techniques to get people out of their chairs and to role play scenarios you’re interested in exploring. For the mobile wallet groups, we created a café-like setting, complete with a cash register and a line of other “customers” in the form of life-sized cardboard cutouts of people. By creating this more realistic context, we learned how the social pressure of standing in line impacted expectations around speed and ease of use for a payment app that we likely would not have uncovered if we simply talked about mobile payments in the abstract.

For an outstanding modern-day example of these best practices in action, check out AnswerLab’s recent article about how PayPal leveraged these techniques in Quirk’s magazine.

While it’s not possible to draw a direct correlation between Don Draper’s use of focus groups to the recent interest we’re seeing at AnswerLab, it is nonetheless true that focus groups should be considered a classic and timeless research tool. Like the martini, there are ways to continually evolve and tweak it in the quest for perfection, but at its core is a solid formula that leads to enduring success.

For your viewing pleasure: Hidden Valley Ranch Taste test with Melissa McCarthy (Saturday Night Live)