Editor’s note: Alan Nazarelli is president and CEO of Silicon Valley Research Group, a global market research firm, San Jose, Calif. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title, “Make your next focus group an ‘unfocus group.’”

Focus groups are named after the traditional thinking that the group discussion is focused around a particular topic. The proceedings of the group and any structured probing or exercises are designed to shed light on the main topic.

A diametrically different tool is the unfocus group. What is the point of the unfocus group? It’s to explore the white spaces, the terra incognita that resides in the consumer’s mind that is typically not known to marketers. An unfocus group is a conversation with your customers without an agenda. No discussion guide. Just getting to know people without giving thought to deriving insights that will directly affect product or marketing decisions.

Why would a company spend money doing this? Here are a few reasons to try an unfocus groups:

  1. Purely understanding who your customers are may tell you a lot about unfulfilled expectations and unmet desires.
  1. Social media strategies, a vital part of today’s marketing mix, demand intimate knowledge of customers. The best social campaigns are those that create conversations with very little reference or allusion to the product. The product fades into the background as an oblique object. Marketers seldom get to know customers outside of the filter of their products and marketing campaigns. Unfocus groups provide that rare glimpse.
  1. Teach a passion for the customer. Many companies cultivate a product passion culture, then declare it a customer passion culture and believe and act as if it were so. The two are quite different and unfocus groups are one way to cultivate and appreciate the distinction.
  1. See the rocket ship. In a Seinfeld episode, Kramer obtains a computer-generated painting, sees a rocket ship and declares the trick to seeing it is to unfocus his eyes. Elaine's boss, Mr. Pittman, fails to see the rocket ship because he had trouble unfocusing and gets so obsessed with trying to see the rocket ship that he misses an important meeting on the Poland Springs merger. My point: Be open to discovery. Again, don't count on these “rocket ship sightings” happening each time but there are strong possibilities for discovery of ground breaking ideas for product extensions, positioning, new untapped market segments, etc. during an unfocus group.
  1. Keep it blind. Let your moderator or research service provider know you don’t want your brand’s identity revealed. This will enable the moderator to explore with the knowledge of the client company in her pocket to (only somewhat) guide the discussion.
  1. Resist the temptation to add structure. Business people have a hard time not adding structure. We are programmed to do this early in our careers. We make sure every meeting has an agenda, every memo a purpose. In an unfocus group, we are asked to work without one.
  1. Last but not least, remember it’s not a survey. No yes or no, right or wrong answers here. We often blur the lines between surveys and open ended discussion, thinking of the latter as a survey in a verbal form. One example of this is our use of the term respondent. The industry talks about survey respondents and focus group respondents. I am careful to never refer to those attending a focus groups as respondents. They are always participants. Respondents respond, which is fine for a closed ended survey. Participants engage. Sometimes they lead. This is true for all focus groups. On your next focus group project, tell your moderator to call everyone participants. This one small shift in orientation will make a big difference in the results you obtain.

When and how often should you conduct unfocus groups? Once or twice a year, depending on the scale and scope of your annual market research effort (and therefore budget) would be a good cadence. Fall is a great time for those with fiscal years that match the calendar year, as ideas feed nicely into next year’s plans and priorities.

Good luck with your next focus group. May it be an unfocus group!