Ever been part of a focus group? Ever wondered who was on the other side of the two-way mirror, and whether or not they were laughing at you?

The answer is: me, and frequently.

Focus testing is something we do quite a lot. Well, we don’t do it, we hire professionals to facilitate, but we guide the process and observe the sessions.

Sound tedious? Not at all. To me it’s endlessly fascinating. But I’m an information junkie and pretty thick skinned. So even if they hate the work, which can happen, I want to know: why? why? why?

Why? So we can make it better.

Not all sessions test creative work. Sometimes we probe for thoughts and feelings about a particular issue to inform strategic development. Often we use focus groups and other forms of research such as telephone surveys to establish an awareness and attitude baseline prior to launching a campaign – against which we can assess the success of a campaign by testing again after it has launched. Pretty standard stuff.

But testing creative is the most interesting. There’s this pivotal moment – like a roller coaster car paused at the peak before plunging – when the moderator shows the group the first piece of creative and we, the people behind the glass, hold our breaths, lean forward and wait for the fun to begin. Recently a client and I were testing creative (the result of a year’s work) in Calgary, a key market. At that pivotal moment, the client whispered, in a strangled voice, “Here we go.”

Often referred to as a ‘disaster check’, the reaction of focus group participants is important in ensuring that there’s nothing in the work that may offend or alienate the target. Things that we might miss because we’re too close to the project. And trust me, weird stuff comes up.

We once tested work where focus group participants saw a Christian cross in the creative and speculated at length about its significance. We couldn’t figure out what the group was talking about. Finally, the moderator asked the participants to explain – they pointed to where two pieces of tape in the collage design intersected, forming an X. Huh?!

Other observations, though equally unexpected, are valid – like how individual participants in different groups suggested that a logo design looked as though it was sticking its tongue out. That was certainly something we didn’t see: we fixed it.

There’s a weirdly consistent dynamic that almost all focus groups assume where the same characters emerge: there’s always a bully who pushes the group in a specific direction; a waffler whose feedback is inconsistent; a wallflower who won’t contribute without prompting; a contrarian who disagrees with everything, etc. (A great facilitator is key to keeping the group in line and ensuring the feedback is useful. That’s why we work with professionals.) And almost every time, when the facilitator leaves the room, the group forgets that I’m behind the glass – that’s when you hear the most interesting stuff. Voyeuristic? You bet.

Because focus group feedback can range from ridiculous to sublime, we do caution clients against taking individual participant comments too literally. What we hope emerges from these sessions are points of consistency in opinion, understanding, of course, that unanimity will never be achieved.

We also remind our clients that a focus group is an artificial situation. People’s genuine reaction to encountering advertising spontaneously in its natural environment can be quite different to their reaction in a focus group because the moment you ask for an opinion, there is a tendency to seek fault. That’s just the nature of focus testing. It was a client (who focus tested everything) who first put it into perspective for me. She said, “Hey, as long as they don’t throw up on the table, we’re doing okay.”

So do we recommend focus testing? Absolutely, but keep it in perspective: jump on the roller coaster and shoot for the stars, but be content to at least not induce nausea.