Editor’s note: Sally Sparks is the vice president of consumer insights at research company Food & Drink Resources in Denver.

Many companies hesitate to begin consumer research projects with qualitative testing. Studies that use qualitative methodology such as focus groups are time and money investments, and when there is pressure from the board, your boss, sales, marketing and legal teams to gather concrete data, you can see why teams often choose quantitative over qualitative testing.

Quantitative testing is seen as the easiest way to gather enough data for PowerPoint presentations and to prove return on investment. But market research is more than predictable pie charts. I’m not saying you shouldn’t conduct quantitative testing. I’m saying you should consider qualitative testing first.

Focus groups keep good ideas out of the trash 

Let's say you decide to do an online survey on new product packaging. Eighty percent of those surveyed say they don't like the package and would not buy the product. Then you do a series of focus groups to further study the packaging. You learn that most people in the focus groups like the packaging but find the shiny lettering difficult to read.

In this example, it is qualitative testing that prevents you from throwing out the packaging. If you turn to qual before quant, you can tweak your design and even modify a quantitative research methodology to do further testing, while saving time and money.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you work for a restaurant company that has developed what you think is a really good spicy chicken salad sandwich. When you conduct quantitative testing, only a third of survey participants say they would buy the spicy sandwich. So you rework the recipe.

Had you done qualitative work – alone or in conjunction with the quantitative – you would have discovered that it was, in fact, a good sandwich. Participants liked the flavor but they didn’t think it delivered against the sandwich’s spicy name. If you had known this, you could have avoided redeveloping a recipe and instead simply renamed the menu item.

Three critical factors for successful focus groups

Focus groups are often bypass ed due to time requirements and financial commitment. But focus groups can provide invaluable information as long as three critical factors are considered:

1. Select a savvy moderator – A savvy moderator is an excellent listener who is flexible, follows the agenda and knows when to pose follow-up questions or change the order of questioning. She connects with respondents by asking questions and finding things in common with them. She juggles a lot of ideas but manages to keep the experience feeling natural, comfortable and engaging.

2. See the forest from the trees – If one person in a focus group says they do not like something, that doesn't mean the whole concept should go out the window. Look for threads of continuity in the discussion. Common threads usually lead to the gold nuggets.

Did you know that the slogan "Choosy moms choose Jif" resulted from a focus group? As legend has it, a respondent in a focus group, who happened to be a mother, actually uttered the words, “I’m a choosy mom.”

3. Do not fear groupthink – Group dynamics are an important part of the focus group process. The interaction and discussion between participants is what provides many valuable insights.

Many fear that groupthink will destroy any chances of quality feedback. But a good moderator knows how to overcome the influence of groupthink. By using projective techniques like collaging, word associations, personification exercises, laddering, photo sorts and even silly exercises like creating company obituaries, you'd be amazed what truths shine through.

Don’t overlook focus groups

Consumer research is a combination of art and science – when conducting a traditional qual/quant study, focus groups act as the art and quantitative as the science. Focus groups can get behind the why and how people talk, think and feel about your idea, product, service or brand. When executed and applied correctly – as the sole methodology or in conjunction with other qual or quant techniques – a focus group can enhance, improve and even identify new areas to explore.

Whatever idea, product, service or brand you want to test, consider qualitative testing first. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get the most amazing gold nugget out of it.