4 Ways Your Website Can Replace Focus Groups

While focus groups attempt to simulate and gain insights on what the customer potentially thinks, nothing can substitute truly anonymous, honest and unbiased feedback. Websites, however, can now provide this level of data in real time. Using a combination of online testing, web analytics and CRM data, today’s marketers know what actual people, doing actual searches, on their actual sites are actually thinking—and responding to—when in the browse and buy mode. It’s this level of insight that can spur improvements to product offerings, social media, in-store efforts, other offline experiences and overall marketing efforts.

No, testing and analytics won’t eliminate old-school focus groups altogether, but now that marketers have access to a lot of rich real-time data and insight into their products and marketing efforts already available to them, it’s much easier, scalable and more cost-effective. So how are websites replicating—and advancing—the traditional focus group? We look at four ways that your website can replace focus groups:

1. They’re producing data that can inform overall branding and in-store shopping experiences

We’re all aware that an online store experience has to mimic some of the same elements consumers expect in a physical store: easy-to-find products, items positioned strategically on the “shelf,” helpful customer service and so on. But where we may fall short is the reverse: using online data to improve brick-and-mortar efforts.

For example, testing and personalization insights can reveal that a particular product recommendation is effective at converting more visitors into buyers. From this, a company could reproduce this experience in its stores—whether through its associates or with product displays placed near checkout. Or if a brand notices online visitors are consistently gravitating toward a certain editorial tone or responding positively to distinct button colors, these things could also be integrated into in-store signage, advertising, direct mail and beyond.

2. They integrate in-store purchase data to customize online experiences

Just as your site is continuously collecting customer data, so are your physical stores. And the two worlds must collide in order to mutually benefit from one another. For instance, if a customer buys a TV without a warranty, the purchase may trigger an email or site promotion that highlights coverage for the TV. Ever bought something from the Apple store, like an iPhone? If so, a few days later you inevitably receive an email about your new iPhone.

In the end, it’s about making smart recommendations based on the user’s known activity, no matter where that activity originated. And unlike a focus group, this activity is really happening, in real time.

3. They’re leveraging social media and loyalty data

Social media and loyalty programs are gold mines for customers’ activity in the real world: What do they do? What do they like? What are their preferences while engaging with a brand they return to again and again? Now this data is being used to create unique individual profiles, and tailor their online experiences accordingly.

Take a hotel website: some are using social and loyalty data to enhance the customer experience from booking through checkout. Information such as program status, recent travel activity, “likes,” travel frequency, prior or frequent destinations can be fed directly into an automated targeting model and greatly improve the precision and appeal of any offers displayed to this valuable customer—such as a free room upgrade, tickets to a nearby event or a car rental. By already knowing the customer’s background, the website can take care of the rest.

4. They’re using online reviews and site engagement wisely

Shoppers don’t only share their preferences by purchasing products, they do it through their product reviews and other activity on the site. Over time and across customers, this activity can tip marketers off to items customers are likely to purchase in the future, specific problems they’re trying to solve, and even nuanced life situations—all of which can trigger different direct marketing efforts.

A good recent example of this was Target’s teen pregnancy discovery. While this particular situation led to debate, the customer’s patterns were so consistent that the store was able to flag her for a triggered direct mail campaign personalized for pregnant women. Focus groups just can’t compete with situations like this.


Written by Paul Dunay
Paul Dunay is an award-winning B2B marketing expert with more than 20 years’ success in generating demand and creating awareness for leading technology, consumer products, financial services and professional services organizations. Paul is the global vice president of marketing for Maxymiser a leading web optimization firm, and author of four “Dummies” books: Facebook Marketing for Dummies (Wiley 2009), Social Media and the Contact Center for Dummies (Wiley Custom Publishing 2010), Facebook Advertising for Dummies (Wiley 2010) and Facebook Marketing for Dummies 2nd Edition (Wiley 2011). His unique approach to marketing has led to recognition of Paul as a BtoB Magazine Top 25 B2B Marketer of the Year for 2010 and 2009 and winner of the DemandGen Award for Utilizing Marketing Automation to Fuel Corporate Growth in 2008. He is also a finalist for the last six years in a row in the Marketing Excellence Awards competition of the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), and is a 2010 and 2005 gold award winner in Driving Demand. Buzz Marketing for Technology, Paul’s blog, has been recognized as a Top 20 Marketing Blog for 2009 and 2008, a Top Blog to Watch for 2009 and 2008, and an Advertising Age Power 150 blog in the “Daily Ranking of Marketing Blogs.” Paul has shared his marketing thought leadership as a featured speaker for the American Marketing Association, BtoB Magazine, CMO Club, MarketingProfs, Marketing Sherpa, Marketing Executives Networking Group (MENG), and ITSMA. He has appeared on Fox News, and his articles have been featured in BusinessWeek, The New York Times, BtoB Magazine, MarketingProfs and MarketingSherpa. Paul holds an Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Computer Science from Ithaca College.