What do you think? Testing your idea with a focus group. It's not just for large companies.

Author:Hromadka, Erik

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF your new business idea is a winner? Before you allocate significant resources or even your company's future on its success, you might want to get a second opinion ... and a dozen more.

That's the premise behind using focus groups to make sure that your idea and the manner in which you plan to implement it will actually succeed. Market research experts assemble a group of people who match your target audience and moderate a discussion where your idea gets the same kind of scrutiny that it will in the real world.

Doug Diedrich, owner of Held Diedrich in Indianapolis, made focus group testing a focal point of his new headquarters at Fort Benjamin Harrison. While renovating a former horse-drawn artillery barn for his marketing communications company, Diedrich included a room designed to make participants comfortable while allowing their discussions to be viewed by clients and videotaped for later review.

A typical focus group consists of about 12 participants who meet for two hours and consider 20 to 25 questions. The members of the focus group are screened to avoid any bias and the questions are carefully crafted beforehand to guide discussion without leading it to any particular answers.

By doing so, a moderator can explore opinions on such issues as product design, price points, aesthetics and advertising approaches. And the results of those discussions can often identify problems which weren't apparent before.

"Often clients can be so close to the product they are trying to bring to market that they can't see the forest for the trees," Diedrich says, noting that observing a focus group can be shocking for executives. "It's kind of the myth-buster syndrome where the results can be diametrically opposed to what they thought."

Michele Kirby, company vice president, recalls such instances in her experience holding focus groups at Held Diedrich. She says the key is to make participants feel relaxed enough to speak freely instead of thinking they are in an official testing area.

"What we try to avoid is a white-coat environment," she says. "There are no right or wrong answers. Don't worry about being polite. This is the one place where you can get paid to give your honest opinion."

Kirby says that approach can get results. For example, she explains how a focus group helped a manufacturer of child car seats change course. While initial designs featured bright colors and cartoon motifs, focus group testing showed mothers wanted...

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