B2B Focus Groups: Aim for Alchemy, Avoid Anarchy

B2B Focus Groups: Aim for Alchemy, Avoid Anarchy

B2B focus groups aren’t just conversations among peers. They need the structure and punch of a debate with a roundtable discussion’s free exchange of ideas. A skilled market researcher can set this tone.

At their best, B2B focus groups are rigorous qualitative research based on intense discussion—and even argument—among experts. They deliver fast results- in days rather than the weeks needed for other methods. Focus groups give stakeholders an immediate, candid glimpse into how industry professionals view their products.

But it takes a dedicated skillset to harness B2B focus group conversations to generate worthwhile insight. Meticulous preparation, careful moderation, and alignment with stakeholder goals are all critical.

Our approach tees up the focus group to deliver world-class B2B market research insights.

B2B Focus Groups: The Expert Quorum

Specialized, expert participants are key to the success of B2B focus groups. That’s different from B2C studies or political focus groups which prize the every-person’s view.

After all, people need a distinct background to have valuable opinions on topics like trade-offs in database architecture for real-time, AI-driven data analytics, and related business implications. (That need for domain knowledge isn’t unique to tech. It’s equally true for industries that range from retail to heavy manufacturing to healthcare. But B2B is our specialty.)

Recruiting the Right Roles

Finding participants that fit into the right niche is an art and a science. Long before we start looking for people to recruit, we spend a lot of time refining the target criteria. That effort always draws on our experience developing hundreds of these profiles for the B2B tech sector.

We create detailed descriptions of the participants we’re after, and then we communicate directly with prospects to make sure they’re a good fit. This approach is resource-intensive, but it ensures that we have the right individuals to help unpack our key research objectives. Participant criteria are unique to every focus group, but specific examples might look like any of the following:

  • Competitor customers who manage developers building IoT solutions at enterprise companies that have implemented containers for hybrid cloud in the past 12 months.
  • IT decision-makers in the manufacturing industry who recently purchased the client’s solution in the UK or EU but didn’t opt for an ongoing service plan.
  • People who work hands-on in cybersecurity at mid-market companies in North America that have purchased a specific software package within 18 months.
  • Marketing managers at companies that provide integration services through the client’s partner channel and that operate in emerging economies.

Well-chosen participants let us zero in on highly specific research topics, such as how to outflank a particular competitor.

Fancier Titles Don’t Necessarily Have the Answers You’re Looking For

We can also help our clients develop and refine their ideas of who they want to hear from. For example, senior management is probably not the right group for investigating buyer decisions for an enterprise database. Those may be the people who will eventually sign off on the decision, but if the focus group needs to unpack technical details, executives are probably not the right choice. Our role as researchers is to recognize whether the target group is going to be the best one to answer the kinds of questions we are focused on.

Clients trust us to help guide those decisions, and we thrive on that collaboration. The outcome is a better focus group: focusing on VPs for strategic answers or managers for tactical and operational ones, for example.

Knowing Where To Look

As we search for great participants, we look first in their native habitats. For instance, we often go to industry conferences that we know will attract people with the right interest and expertise.

There are plenty of variations on that approach as well. User groups, support forums and social media can be great resources. So can people who are quoted in case studies or customer success stories.

These are great sources to identify working lists of potential participants.

Active Moderation Turns a Discussion into Research

Moderators need a lot of different skills in their toolboxes. They need to know how to keep the conversation focused on specific goals. They also need to be able to draw out reluctant participants and avoid letting one or two forceful personalities dominate the conversation.

But excellent moderator skills are just table stakes. Without the appropriate domain knowledge, generalists will be hard-pressed to draw out the specific business and technical context to answer real business questions. To paraphrase a long-time CIA analyst, “good analysis makes the complex comprehensible, which is not the same as simple.”

In search of that “good analysis,” we believe in three interconnected criteria. These include understanding the technology, understanding the business context and understanding the personas involved.

Technical Domain Knowledge Informs the Business Context

Topical domain knowledge of the subject being discussed is a prerequisite for being engaged in the conversation. Both technical and business knowledge are needed to make each other relevant. If either one is missing, the focus group could stall out. Here are some examples of how technologies come together to meet client business goals:

  • Choosing cloud services to provide capacity on demand for seasonal transaction peaks.
  • Using IoT to track assets, inventories, or predictive maintenance needs.
  • Taking advantage of blockchain to protect title transfer or other transactions.
  • Selecting mobile device management to protect business data on BYOD devices.
  • Using virtual and augmented reality to build interactive service manuals.
  • Implementing a document management system to streamline financial audits.
  • Applying artificial intelligence to accelerate and improve business decision making.

We often rely on our depth of technical understanding even more than our skill as facilitators. If you walk into a roomful of database admins to discuss the relative merits of SQL versus non-relational databases without knowing your stuff, it’s going to be a long afternoon.

We also speak the participants’ language when they say they need better information about the database’s consistency model, caching options and support for transactions and high availability.

Understanding the context lets us communicate more effectively and directly with the participants. That lets us draw out the full benefit of their perspectives.

The Business Context Is Just as Important

Understanding the business context is at least as important as the technology that enables it. We work with people in a range of roles within the B2B context. A few examples of those groups and how we apply research to help them include:

  • B2B marketers: Develop foundations for better-targeted messaging. That can help build out marketing initiatives or improve competitive position.
  • B2B sales leaders: Identify factors that have made past sales engagements successful or unsuccessful. Looking at those helps develop better strategies to win against the competition.
  • B2B product leaders: Recommend how to pursue product definitions, feature roadmaps, or operational approaches based on the business needs we uncover.

Moderators also need to generate the right questions on the fly. They must be prepared to drill down into emerging business scenarios and how they are being enabled by tech. We understand in advance where specific industries are looking for business benefits. That context proves to be just as vital as understanding the technologies themselves.

Speaking the Lingo of the Personas

Understanding the personas participating in focus groups helps us relate to them. A simple example is needing to understand the different perspectives and needs of an executive thinking about strategic and financial impacts versus a team manager who is more concerned with boots on the ground getting their day-to-day jobs done.

Handled well, disagreements can enrich the discussion. Left to their own devices, they could shut down the conversation.

Talking to Technologists on Their Own Terms

When we moderate a discussion between data scientists, for example, we benefit from lots of previous research conversations with other data scientists. Our knowledge of the challenges, solutions, and tools they deal with every day goes a long way toward fostering productive discussion with them.

We already know that they probably write code in Python or R (and that these days, it’s more likely Python), we’re familiar with some of the libraries they’re using, and so on. We also know that their biggest worry is building a model that’s wrong or one that that doesn’t scale from the bench to production.

Keeping Business Goals At The Forefront

Discussions between business decision-makers are likely to focus on what they want a given technology solution to accomplish for the business. For example, they might want to satisfy audit requirements, apply business rules, or track KPIs related to marketing initiatives. They are also likely to be thinking about financial issues, such as the solution’s ROI and how it helps drive profitability.

Being familiar with both business and technical personas—as well as how they interact and their day-to-day business concerns—positions us to communicate effectively with them. That communication helps us uncover the insights we hold B2B focus groups to discover in the first place.

Keeping The Focus Group Focused on the Research Stakeholders’ Key Questions

In general, research stakeholders observe focus groups while they are underway, whether from behind one-way glass, from the edge of the room, or using a video link. We’re committed to including them in the proceedings.

Even though the stakeholders helped create the discussion guide, we know they will want to respond to the conversation in real-time. We pride ourselves on being able to beat the stakeholder to the punch, or at least to getting affirmation that we hit the follow-up dead-on. But in every case, we fully support the ability for our clients to weigh in when needed.

A business example is for a participant to mention that they pay less for a competitor’s product. In that case, we might follow up on pricing details, such as whether they are comparing list price to a discounted one.

Similarly, a technical issue might be negative past experiences using public cloud for compute-intensive workloads. We may want to follow up on whether they had tried using newer cloud instances with larger amounts of CPU and memory resources.

Making the Most of Disagreement

It’s not unusual for a stakeholder not to like everything they hear from a focus group.

In fact, the focus group may slaughter the client’s sacred cow right in front of their eyes. What if the group disparages the UI redesign that key stakeholders have been working on for two years? What if the lead developer has to witness the group trashing the stability or security of their product?

In those cases, we draw on our understanding of the technologies, business contexts, and personas involved to make that disagreement productive. The moderator draws out the reasons for the objections as well as possible remedies. Skill and tact are needed to keep the conversation on track, along with diplomacy.

B2B Focus Groups Require Skill & Specialization

Focus groups are more than round-table discussions. They need a disciplined path toward specific discourse and argument, where alchemy beats out anarchy. We pride ourselves on selecting the right participants and in revealing insight that would otherwise remain hidden.

Our moderators need to come to the table with a solid grounding in both the business and technical needs of the solution. They are ready to shift with the conversation, especially when that means knowledge of adjacencies, grace in the face of awkward moments and the poise to seize unforeseen opportunities.

Part consultant, part ringleader, and part diplomat, B2B focus group moderators must alchemize insight from controlled chaos.


With B2B focused market research and marketing services, Cascade Insights helps companies seize opportunities in the B2B technology sector.

Special thanks to Director of Messaging Isa Gautschi, President & CTO Scott Swigart, and Director of Systems Design Philippe Boutros for advising on this piece.

Contributor: Matt Gillespie is a technology writer based in Chicago. Learn more about him here.

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