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Tips for Getting Great Results from a Brainstorming Sessions and Focus Groups

March 28, 2012 at 6:04 PM

Exhausted entrepreneur? Swamped supervisor? Deluged director? Many of us are charged with cultivating fresh ideas for our companies, but daily operations and other on-the-job stressors can be Kryptonite to idea-breeding.

Brilliance is creating fertile soil for ideas, not being the Sole Creator of All Ideas in the Universe. The best ideas generally aren’t yours. Some of the most brilliant and successful innovators of our time have proudly copped to tapping the idea-well available from staff, peers and customers.

Forum Choices

Consider what you need and choose the appropriate forum. There are no hard and fast rules. You can even create hybrids. My advice for beginners is to start small. You can use a one-time session to determine the viability of a longer-term advisory group or industry roundtable.

Focus groups are intended for gleaning consumer opinions. The goal here would be to walk away with qualitative and quantitative data.

Brainstorming sessions are more general and the expected deliverable might be just a list of actionable ideas to solve a problem or increase sales.

Think tanks, roundtables, advisory boards carry the expectation is that there will be recurring meetings and/or that the group will work together long term to tackle a subject/project.

You are smart. You are beautiful. You deserve good ideas provided by others.

The important thing to know is that these tools are not just for the Big Guys. It’s a crying shame that more small businesses do not leverage these methods. They are cheap, available on short notice and can give you the best ideas money can’t even buy. Don’t be a chicken. Your peers WANT you to succeed, your employees NEED you to succeed and your customers LOVE to air their opinions and desires. 

Cut to the Chase

Here’s a concise cheat sheet to getting a group of folks to open up and provide great ideas in any forum.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask brilliant people to participate
  • You may be wishing you could access the brilliance of a particularly respected (and busy) professional. Invite them! Why not? The worst they can say is no. Just be sure to cover your bases by asking enough people to attend to cover the no-shows. Read on to insure your session/group is hard to resist.
  • Flatter your attendees. People are much more likely to attend if you can make the event feel selective.
  • Example 1: Perhaps you are sending a letter to your desired attendees for a brainstorming session. The letter should say that you are inviting only the finest minds in the region to brainstorm the topic. Hold your meeting at a local university to enhance the concept of discovery and the spirit of academia.
  • Example 2: You are building a focus group of area consumers. You place a classified newspaper ad and include in the ad copy that participants must pre-qualify. Send them to a web poll or ask them to call to answer a series of questions and then notify those accepted with some statistics such as “100 people were interviewed and you are one of 15 selected to participate.”
  • Be Creative! Why use boring terms such as Brainstorming Session or Focus Group? Make it sound much more hip by using a unique term to describe the group. Examples:
    • Genius Team
    • Rap Session (an oldie but a goodie for a casual setting)
    • Charrette
    • Jellies (recently reinvigorated concept in large cities)
  • Expectations of confidentiality
    • If sensitive information will be shared at a session, set up an expectation of confidentiality. If necessary, ask for confidentiality agreements in advance. However if idea-sharing is the idea, you don’t want to stifle by imposing legalities, especially if you are using one of the more casual formats.

  • Consider your venue and the comfort of attendees.
    • Food and drink. Keep it good and plenty but avoid alcohol.
    • Seating: comfy and plenty of it
    • Parking: easy and free or valet.
    • Room: Good temperature, no distractions.
    • Cool Factor: Can you hold your session in a destination building? Historic significance or ultra-modern? A theatre? A university? How cool is your building?
    • Allergies: Consider location, pets and other allergy-triggering stuff.
    • A/V: Be sure it is top-notch and take the time to pre-test your equipment to avoid an epic fail.
    • Do you have to meet in person at all? There are all sorts of cool cyber options.
  •  Control the group or get out of the way
    • If you are not a great facilitator, hire one. Also consider that if you are asking for constructive criticism, it may be hard for people to give it to your face. A facilitator gives them the freedom to be really honest without fear of hurting your feelings.
  • Compensating your attendees
    • There is no wrong answer. If your group is meeting one time, you can offer money, a free meal and fun time, tickets to an event or other non-monetary perk. If your group will be meeting on a recurring basis, you should offer remuneration as well as recognition. Folks can use this as a resume builder if they are serving on a formal Board of Advisors on your behalf. My advice in this second example is to set a term of service, such as 6 months or 1 year. This will allow you to refresh the group as needed.
  • Follow through and follow up
    • Your attendees want to know that their service mattered. Once completed, be sure to follow up with them on the topic in a letter, email update or thank-you note.

Never stop marketing

Bear in mind that assembling a group of folks and asking them to concentrate on your business is just another form of marketing. It’s more attention than you will get from any ad you can place. This level of engagement is worthy of some marketing consideration – so be sure that you are representing your company properly and positively and be sure to stay in touch with your attendees. Even if you are asking them to solve a yucky problem for you, you can paint this in a positive light showing them you are humble enough to admit shortcomings and that you intend to resolve them. Can you send them home with a bag of awesome samples? Can you give them VIP passes for a year? How else can you over deliver ? Be sure you don’t take them for granted or show them a dark side that they may discuss with neighbors or friends. 


Amy Scott


Amy Scott is a veteran marketeer and founded Wild Apple Design Group in 2000. She frequently speaks and teaches on marketing and graphic design techniques.

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