If you've spent any time here in my column, you know about my hate/hate relationship with focus groups. The timing is always wrong, the focus is always wrong, the demographic is always too close to the market in question, the results are always skewed, and the time is most always wasted. We are drowning in data, research analysis, and focus groups.
Modern businesses need to shift from the old-school focus group, to the more effective customer advisory board. Knowing this, I went straight to the expert on customer advisory boards, Betsy Westhafer, who spends her time helping B2B organizations grow in alignment with their customers needs.
The Brand Vacuum + Focus Groups: The Deadly Combination
A lot of companies experience an self-affirming brand vacuum that prevents them from understanding which step is the right next step for the future of their company. We see this in companies all the time, who unroll something they think is going to smash the market, in both innovation and interest, and it doesn't. Products and ideas, even from large corporations, miss the mark and fail all the time because of this deadly combination of the brand vacuum plus ineffective focus groups.
What Is the Difference Between Focus Groups and Customer Advisory Boards?
Focus Groups: This focus is always more feature, function, about a product rollout - it's customer input but at the very feature, function, detail, and technical level. The biggest warning you need to know about focus groups is that a lot of the people who end up in this group are too close to the market and they will squash good innovation due to their own thought process, comfort level with current offerings, or even nostalgia.
Customer Advisory Boards: Strategic executive level initiatives, ongoing study, decision maker to decision maker, to find out where the customers are heading to get there before they do, so when they need you, you're already there, one step ahead. The biggest piece of advice I can give you on using a customer advisory board is to let an expert handle the process for you.
Who Uses and Benefits From An Advisory Board?
Based on the work Betsy has done with businesses in all stages of growth, from startups who need that initial direction and feedback, to mid-stage who need that continuation of getting ahead of where their clients needs are, this approach seems to work in all stages. Even larger, more established businesses will continue to see growth taking this approach, because innovation and rapid change requires this type of awareness, and focus on moving forward continually.
Auditing and Closing the Brand Perception Gap
We just talked about the importance of having the right insight, from the right people, and the right ways to audit and close that brand perception gap. This is one more piece of that puzzle. It is so important to understand the drivers behind customer behaviors by gaining feedback that is committed to the success of your business.
Expert Tip: You Can't Run Your Own Advisory Board, Period.
Your results will be skewed, your questions will have shadows, your dominant people will take over, and your "we've already tried that" people will be out in full force. The rule of working your strengths and hiring out the rest, definitely applies here.