Posted by Alan Nazarelli ● Tue, Jul 14, 2020 @ 07:07 PM

Make Your Next Focus Group An "Unfocus Group"


Focus groups are called that because of the traditional thinking has been that the discussion is focused around a particular topic. The proceedings of the group and any structured probing or exercises are designed to shed light on the main topic.

Make your next focus group an unfocus group

A diametrically different but highly valuable tool is the “Unfocus Group.” What then, is the point of the Unfocus Group? It’s to explore the white spaces, the terra incognita that resides in the consumer’s mind that is typically not known to marketers who only see their customers through the lens of their products and services. An Unfocus Group is a conversation with your customers without an agenda. What, no discussion guide? Exactly. Just getting know them as people without giving thought to deriving insights that will directly affect product or marketing decisions.

Why would a company spend good money doing this and what benefit would they derive? Here are some:

  1. Purely understanding who your customers are may tell you a lot about unfulfilled expectations and unmet desires (okay, I lied, there is an agenda here, albeit a little loose).

  1. Social media strategies, that are a vital part of the marketing mix today, demand this intimate knowledge of customers. The most successful social media strategies depend on this. The best social campaigns are also those that create conversations without very little reference or allusion to the product. The product fades into the background as an oblique object. Marketers seldom get to know customers outside of the filter of their products and marketing campaigns to get good at this. Unfocus Groups provide that rare glimpse.

  1. Inculcate a “passion for the customer” discipline (as opposed to a “passion for the product” approach). What takes place behind the glass in these sessions is just as important as what happens in the participant room. Many companies cultivate a “product passion culture”, then declare it a “customer passion culture” and believe and act as if it were so. The two are quite different and Unfocus Groups are one way to cultivate and appreciate the distinction. And if nothing else, the difference between the two becomes a revelation behind the glass.

  1. make your next focus group an unfocus groupSee the rocket ship. Be open to discovery and ah-ha moments. Again, don't count on these happening each time but there are strong possibilities for discovery of ground breaking ideas for product extensions, positioning, new untapped market segments etc. In a Seinfeld episode, Kramer obtains a computer generated painting and sees a rocket ship and declares the trick to seeing it is to unfocus his eyes instead of focusing. Elaine's boss, Mr. Pittman, fails to see the rocket ship because he had trouble unfocusing and gets so obsessed with trying to see the rocket ship that he misses an important meeting on the Poland Springs merger. Try to see the rocket ship by unfocusing.

  1. Keep it blind. Let your moderator/research service provider know you don’t want your identify revealed. Keeping it blind will enable participants to go far afield and enable the moderator to explore wide expanses with the knowledge of the client company in her pocket to (only somewhat) guide the discussion.

  2. Resist the temptation to add structure. Business people have a hard time not adding structure. We are programmed to do this early in our careers. We make sure every meeting has an agenda, every memo a purpose. In an Unfocus Group, we are asked to work without one. How can we justify this? How will we report to our bosses on this? How do we justify to ourselves and those writing the checks, that the money was well spent? What if we have too much fun AND gain useful insights in the process?

  1. Last but not least, remember it’s not a survey. No yes or no, right or wrong answers here. There are tell-tale signs in our market research industry that we often blur the lines between surveys and open ended discussion, often thinking of the latter as a survey in a verbal form. One example is the use of the term “respondent”. The industry talks about survey respondents and focus group respondents. At our company, we are careful never to refer to those attending our focus groups as respondents. They are always participants. Respondents respond, which is fine for your closed ended survey. Participants engage. Sometimes they lead. This is particularly important for conducting Unfocus Groups, but universally true for all focus groups. On your next focus group project, tell your moderator you don’t want them called respondents. We guarantee this one small shift in orientation will make a big difference in the results you obtain. It did and does for us and our clients!

So when and how often should you conduct Unfocus Groups? Once or twice a year depending on the scale and scope of your annual market research effort (and therefore budget) would be a good cadence. We also believe Fall is a great time. For those with fiscal years that match the calendar year, this is a good time for harvesting ideas that feed nicely into next year’s plans and priorities.

Good luck with your next focus group. May it be an Unfocus Group!


Alan Nazarelli is President and CEO of Silicon Valley Research Group, a global market research and strategy development firm.



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Topics: Market Research Best Practice