“We don’t have a budget for focus groups.”

So says Grace (Jane Fonda) to Frankie (Lily Tomlin) on the hit Netflix comedy series Grace and Frankie. The characters founded a start-up and are faced with a big problem: they need feedback from their customers in order to determine the company’s positioning and communication strategy.

The “no budget” problem is increasingly common for many companies, large and small. You need feedback from your customers (or potential customers) in order to improve your product, service, or marketing. That learning can mean the difference between rousing success and spectacular failure. But if you don’t have a research budget, what do you do?

Assuming money isn’t going to materialize out of thin air, you have several choices – move money from other line items, use your “best guess” based on what you already know, or take the DIY approach.

In Grace and Frankie, they chose to DIY it. Since the show is a comedy, you know it won’t go quite as expected.

I’ll admit it, it pains me to see people try to wing it. Clients have said to me “how hard can moderating be?” As with many skills, the easier it appears, the more difficult it really is. Moderating is no different.

While the mechanics of setting up a focus group are pretty straight-forward, proper moderating is a mental juggling act not for the faint of heart.

My colleagues and I counted 7 different things you must juggle while moderating:

Focus group scene from  Mad Men

Focus group scene from Mad Men

  1. the question you’ve just asked

  2. the respondent’s answer to the question

  3. what your follow-up might be

  4. how the other respondents react

  5. how the client reacts

  6. how the response fits with the other learnings you have on the project

  7. the next question on the discussion guide

And all of that is just to keep the conversation going!

There is also value in having an objective 3rd party discover what’s true in order to give you honest feedback. The quality of the moderating impacts the quality of the learning and your project. And that has an impact on your business.

This isn’t to talk you out of taking a DIY approach. Sometimes you have no choice due to budget and resource limitations. If that is the case, then I’d at least like you to be as prepared as possible. Go into it with eyes wide open.

Believe it or not, you can learn some tips of what to do and not to do from popular shows like Grace and Frankie, Silicon Valley, Mad Men, and even SNL.

Let’s look at the Grace and Frankie episode. The titular characters are ready to launch their first product - a vibrator for older women with arthritic issues in the hands and wrists. The first samples of the Menage-a-Moi arrive and they want to get feedback on it. Since they have no budget, they decide to do a DIY focus group (sound familiar?).

Here are 4 tips from Grace and Frankie that you can use on your own DIY research projects:

1.  Know Your Audience

When they realize one of their friends is in a “women’s social group,” Frankie declares: “Sounds like our target market.” It absolutely is, except they didn’t realize it was a religiously-oriented social group. Of course that feeds the comedy but it underscores the point that you need to know who your target is.

DIY Tip: In a DIY situation, you often invite a less-than-properly-recruited group involving friends and friends of friends. That’s okay, as long as you make sure they fit the profile of who would use your product. And keep the group small, 6-8 people is plenty.

2.  In Vino Veritas “In Wine There is Truth”

The women arrive and you see them all sipping from glasses of wine. It sets the tone for their gathering - social and casual, rather than formal and stuffy. While they didn’t stay long enough to finish their wine, if they had, it might have helped open them up to the conversation.

DIY Tip: Help your guests get comfortable. Offer them snacks and refreshments. Wine is not the best idea as you don’t want someone to get drunk accidentally, nor do you want the liability risks if they get behind the wheel after the event. However, you can create a comfortable environment for them to sit in and participate. Start the conversation with broader topics, help the group get to know one another if they don’t already. The more they can bond, the more likely they’ll feel comfortable opening up as you get into the specifics.

3.  Timing is Everything

During the focus group, Grace listens to one woman talk about her arthritic hands and then jumps in with a question about how her hand feels after she masturbates. Grace’s awkward segue is played to comic effect but the shock of the respondents isn’t unlike what would happen with real people if you get too far into a topic too soon.

DIY Tip: Moderating is an art, and part of that art is reading your audience and knowing when to go a little deeper and when to stay at the surface. Having done research on sensitive topics like sex and chronic health conditions, I can vouch for taking the thoughtful approach. Let the respondent finish, see if someone else has a similar experience. Had Grace asked about situations where the arthritis got in the way, the topic would have come up organically. Or at least they would have been closer and it wouldn’t have been such a leap.

4.  All Learning is Helpful

By the end, it’s clear that the DIY focus group is a disaster; the respondents walked out. Grace proclaims, “We have a huge problem. One word, masturbation, and they were out of here. It’s not like I gave a demonstration…How do we get people to try a product that no one will admit they want or need?”

DIY Tip: That is an incredibly, valuable learning. Never assume everyone will react to your product or positioning the way you do. That’s why you need to do the research in the first place. Remember, you are going into this to learn something. If they don’t like your product, that’s helpful. Even what seems like a disaster will have relevant learning for your product. Listen and have someone take notes on everything that is being said.

Hollywood is usually good at writing a happy ending. It’s not so easy in real life. If you can’t work with a professional and have to take the DIY approach, help get the best learning possible by taking the time to learn these tips.

Bonus Tips from Hollywood:

This “Mad Men” clip has some great suggestions and reminders for any moderator during a group. 

For a few laughs, check out the focus group scene from Silicon Valley or the Hidden Valley Ranch taste test on SNL

What lessons have you learned from taking the DIY approach? Let us know! Join the DIY conversation FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.