How effective are focus groups when making changes like developing a new website or optimizing our digital products and product positioning?

Historically speaking, focus groups have guided the thinking of marketing teams in their decision-making processes. However, this comes from an older, more traditional way of thinking. Now, focus groups might not be the best path forward in today's digital-first shopping world. 

Especially in a post-COVID world where we will likely see a lot more work done online than ever before, I’m taking a look at how effective marketing groups are, and how they need to adapt to our primarily digital environment to be useful.

The Three Pitfalls of Focus Groups

The goal of any focus group is to create the most value, not just for your financial brand, but also for the people that your financial brand serves in a digital world.

But not all focus groups are entirely effective.

There are a few pitfalls that accompany these focus groups that can leave you feeling trapped when looking to gain insights into the hearts and minds of digital consumers. 

At this stage, we’re concerned with a few things:

  • Why do people make the decisions they make when it comes to buying financial products and services? 
  • How do people go about making those decisions in the first place?
  • What clarity can we get about consumers’ biggest roadblocks; the things that they might need to eliminate on their buying journey?
  • What are the greatest opportunities for your financial brand to reach these consumers?

For years, I conducted dozens of digital focus groups for financial brands. In reflection on those studies now, I’ve pinpointed three problems that would always arise around gaining new insights into digital consumers' thinking:

  1. The group succumbs to groupthink. Groupthink is the Achilles heel of focus groups—there's often one very vocal person in the group who takes over the collective thoughts of others. This a predictable pattern in focus groups, no matter how hard the facilitator tries. Time and time again, I've witnessed the majority of people within focus groups fall in line with a single person's perspective. This is likely a subconscious result of our desire to find harmony and to avoid conflict in a group setting; it helps a group reach a consensus quickly. 
  2. There’s no correlation between opinions and actual behaviors. It can be challenging to get into the mind of the digital consumer. There's no direct correlation between the opinions shared in focus groups and the behaviors that people actually take. 

    focus group

In the real world, these people's actions don't connect with the desired future state that they're looking to achieve. It's easy for people to share what they hope to achieve. What's much harder to share in a focus group setting, are the roadblocks that stand in their way of reaching that desired future state.

  • Focus groups focus too much on solutions. In focus groups, participants often share insights into solutions, solutions they think they need to a problem they think they have—problems they want your financial brand to solve. They start talking about feature sets without talking about how they would use this product to overcome a roadblock that's standing in their way or use this product to get to the bigger, better, brighter future that they desire. Being in a focus group doesn't facilitate the deeper,  analytical conversation into a person's “why.” Why do they want what they want?

Focus groups can be tricky in any industry. This is even more true in financial services because there is a tremendous amount of shame wrapped up in a person's financial roadblocks. For example, did a study and discovered that one out of three US consumers feels constant stress because of financial problems.

focus group 2

Put plainly? Thirty-four percent of us feel too embarrassed to discuss financial matters because we think that they're worse off than our friends. Additionally, one out of five Americans doesn't talk about money because they're ashamed of their personal financial habits—and this figure is only getting worse. 

What we need to do is get people to openly and honestly discuss their financial situation, both the good and the bad: The goals of where they're looking to go, as well as, more importantly, the roadblocks of what's holding them back. This is hard to do in front of a group of strangers in a focus group setting but in reality, it's identifying and uncovering the roadblocks that provide a financial brand with the greatest opportunity for them to maximize digital products and digital product positioning.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical example: 

A focus reaches a general consensus that everyone wants to save money; their desired future state. Everyone in the group jumps on the groupthink train and enthusiastically agrees that "Yes, that's what we want." 

What we don't learn in this case is why these people have a savings problem in the first place, because maybe they don't have a savings problem. In all likelihood, some of these people have a spending problem. Optimizing a savings account in this case is the incorrect solution. The missed opportunity here to optimize a spending account that includes some type of financial coaching accountability to help these consumers transform their relationship and thinking patterns surrounding money; to transform their spending behaviors. Only then will they transform their spending behaviors and work towards achieving that desired future state of saving more money. 

Thinking Outside the Banker's Box

If we're not careful, digital focus groups quickly become a fruitless exercise in wishful thinking, because focus groups require some reference points to be effective. 

"It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." -Steve Jobs

Think back to when the iPhone was first launched in 2007. What if Apple had focus-grouped the phone before going to market? I think at the time, people might've complained, "Well, can't you just have a physical keyboard like all the other phones?" People make decisions based upon the context of what they know today. There’s no reference point in their mind to anchor against another, better solution. 

Let’s apply this thinking to banking. People don't need another checking account. So, what do people need? That's the big question. We must dive deeper. 

  • What's the pain they are experiencing? 
  • What's stressing them out? 
  • What's keeping them up at night? 
  • What's taking a toll on their health and their wellbeing? 

The answers might not have anything to do directly with a product like a new checking account or debit card; this is the transaction of just dollars and cents. 

Banking must become so much more than a transaction.

Financial brands need to transform their thinking, to put the transformation of people over the commoditized transaction of dollars and cents, which requires a great deal of courage. 

How do we get there? How do we go deeper into the hearts and minds of digital consumers? 

Digital Secret Shopping Studies

A great opportunity for your financial brand is to gain insights through quantitative and qualitative digital secret shopping studies.

This is how you can discover what’s truly in the minds of your consumers.

These insights can then be further amplified when compared to competitive benchmarking of other financial institutions, neo-banks, and neo-lenders.

This strategy provides a foundational relation and relativism into a consumer's mind about what's being presented in comparison to the alternative choices available to them.

Digital secret shopping studies offer tremendous competitive advantage for you. 


Recently, we surveyed more than 300 financial brands and discovered that among them, 94% of bank and credit union websites have never undergone any type of digital secret shopping study. 

Could you imagine if Amazon or Zappos or any major digital retailer never secret shopped their digital experiences? What would those experiences look like today? 

Conversely, seventy-two percent of financial brands have been performing ongoing secret shopping studies for their physical branches. Since we also discovered that 87 percent of consumer journeys begin online, this lack of focus on digital experience is troubling. 

We can think about digital secret shopping studies through two different lenses: 

  1. Quantitative studies where you can gain some perspectives around the big data sets with tools like heat maps, click maps,  and scroll maps of key product pages. These big datasets provide a macro-level perspective into how people interact with your website throughout the buying journey. But the “how” and the “what” are only half of the story of the overall narrative. 
  2. Qualitative studies can fill this gap by utilizing thick data to uncover why people do what they do, and more importantly, why do they feel the way they feel when shopping for a financial product on your website compared to other financial brands. 

The most important element of these qualitative studies comes from asking the right questions and then responding to a person's unique answer with empathy.

This is why the first two questions that we ask here at the Digital Growth Institute when conducting digital secret shopping studies for financial brands are contextual and framed around a specific product. These questions are: 

  • Based on what you're seeing right now, do you feel like you can trust this financial brand? This is a binary question; it’s either true or it's false.  Consumers form their answer within milliseconds of being presented with a digital experience. 
  • Based upon what you see, how does this financial brand make you feel right now, and even more importantly, why do you feel that way? 

From these questions about trust and emotions we can dive into other questions that provide additional perspective into why a consumer thinks the way they do, why they behave the way they do, and why do they make decisions the way that they're making them when shopping for a financial product on your website. 

Removing Our Biases: Digital Product Optimization

Digital consumer research is hard, but not because it’s hard to find participants and conduct interviews. Truthfully, it's never been easier to conduct digital secret shopping studies. 

Digital consumer research is hard because it forces you to consider people's true behaviors and their true motivations. These insights can challenge your own perceived bias and perspective of the world. That's sometimes very hard to intake, process, and then take action on. 

Innovation and digital product optimization come from recognizing unmet needs and emotional pain points.

When we know these, we can figure out how to alleviate that pain, develop the cure or find the prescription. It's hard for focus groups to identify a person's greatest pain because:

  1. Most people don't know what they're missing out on until they experience it in the first place
  2. People simply don't want to share their financial pain, their struggles, and really, their shame in front of a group of strangers. 

The path forward to gaining clarity in the hearts and minds of digital consumers is through digital secret shopping studies. This is where you can yield the greatest insights for your financial brand, simply by asking good questions. 

Digital growth is a journey of transformation, of guiding people in the communities that you serve beyond their financial stress, towards a bigger, better, brighter future.