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Focus Groups: The Ultimate Sense-Check

Tags miso, soup

You cannot get far with a business concept without asking for feedback. For food, you are going to get people’s opinion whether you asked for it or not!

Being more than a little precious about my start-up and recipes, I carried with me a nervous excitement all week. Part of me was absolutely DREADING our focus groups, even though I knew how absolutely critical it was to our progress.

As we prepare to meet with the supermarkets soon, independent and objective research like focus groups help to build the business case for our existence.

We asked an independent and experienced researcher to run our sessions for us but there was still a lot to prepare for. If you are looking to run focus groups for your business idea, here are the basics.

1. Find an independent company or researcher to facilitate but give them a thorough briefing of your expectations. You can save some money by doing it yourself but we saw value in being able to observe the group as bystanders. Having someone experienced in reading participant responses was important to get the most out of the group, without the risk of ‘leading the witness’.  Being so close to the concept was a disadvantage in our case and I was relieved we had somebody else to run the session.

2. Keep costs low. Our researcher was worth her weight in gold, so we had to keep all our other costs as low as possible. The venue should be as central as you can afford; participants want to be able to get there easily. Luckily, we had a friend who owned a pub in central London with a suite upstairs that we could borrow, so make use of ‘favours’ wherever you can.

3. Make it Worthwhile. To ensure commitment from participants focus groups are often paid. But as a small company, we simply could not afford to, and instead, we promised it would be a short session (2 hours) with plenty of miso soups to taste, sushi and other snacks and drinks. There was also some appeal in taking part in something exclusive: the opportunity to shape how a business turns out was something our attendees found compelling and enjoyable.
4. Be paranoid about drop-outs. People drop out of focus groups at the last minute because of a number of genuine reasons. The risk is higher still when you are not able to pay them. Since we were not running a huge number of focus groups, each person was statistically significant, so we really could not risk many drop-outs. My paranoia was on Red Alert this week, but they needn’t have been, since the right checks were in place: invite them at least a month in advance to secure diary space. Send a reminder a week in advance, and on the actual day send them a text message with the location details again. Each message you send, you are giving them an opportunity to drop out, so you can be best prepared to find a last-minute stand-in.

5. Stay in touch. Your participants, in the age of twitter and facebook will be your mavens. It was so lovely to see participants sharing with their friends and followers about Miso Tasty and our focus groups. These are your VIPs to spoil with merchandise and products.  Being part of your project early means they will probably be interested in how everything turns out with your business, so keep them posted on your developments and be generous!

We had a brilliant week with our focus groups. The insight was in-depth, and the feedback both confirmed direction, as well as flagged issues that needed addressing immediately. When you are so close to a project, you can easily become blind to matters important to the consumer.

This is the ultimate sense-check for your food business before you make hard commitments to your final product; the recipe, packaging, concept…the jury is out until you run focus groups.


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