I'm still a fan of focus groups. Yes, they're mostly qualitative, and at best you're capturing information from a handful of customers that may or may not be representative.
But the richness of information, the multi-dimensional and behavioral feedback is unique to that environment. And with some products (trying on jackets, or testing perfume for example) sending an email survey just doesn't cut it.
But to make focus groups effective, you have to consider what information you're gathering. If you want insights on current customer perceptions, focus groups are good. If you want to measure how current opinions might map to a future idea, great.
But if you want to capture accurate, directional feedback on an innovative new idea, good luck. Focus groups - or simply the act of asking any set of prospective customers their opinion - won't get you anywhere. In fact, it may point you in the wrong direction.
Your customers - current and future - know what they know. They like what's comfortable, what's expected. Throw something new in front of them, and you're asking them to adjust their current worldview. That doesn't always go well.
Innovative ideas, products and services don't always take right away. Even the early adopters don't always initially like it. So how would you expect a group of strangers (or even loyal customers!) to give you accurate feedback on something entirely out of their current frame of reference?
Too often focus groups are used to test new ideas, well beyond current thinking, and the negative feedback collected shuts down the idea before it gets to market - even for a measured test.
And that's a shame, because you can't expect even a well-targeted audience to understand something totally different, even if it will be critical to their productivity, happiness and/or success in years to come.
Innovation, for better or worse, is still about using your instincts and a direct read on the market and its needs. It's not always quantitative. If it was, it would probably be a lot easier and more frequently achieved than it is today.
Matt Heinz is principal at Heinz Marketing, a sales & marketing consulting firm helping businesses increase customers and revenue. Contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.heinzmarketing.com.