The Focus Group is Dead?…Long Live the Focus Group!

Years ago, the naysayers began to predict, “THE DEATH OF THE FOCUS GROUP”.   I remember thinking – ‘what if they’re right?’.  After all, who knew what the sexy new world of on-line research had in store for what was increasingly being seen as an outdated methodology – one started in the 60’s to support  the creative musings of Madison Avenue  Ad Men.

I’ve noticed that this dire prophecy has resurfaced of late and I can’t help but think that it’s all just a big misunderstanding.

Focus Groups aren’t perfect – there, I’ve said it – but the fact is, no one method can be all things to all people. Through focus group fatigue, method bias, inexperience or unreasonable expectations, I wonder if we’ve lost sight of what was once prized and admired about Focus Groups.

5 Arguments In Defence of the Focus Group 

  1. If you’ve seen one group, you’ve seen ‘em all – I’d like to re-frame this to say “If you’ve seen one bad focus group, you’ve seen one too many”.  Much of the frustration clients express on this point stems from attending too many groups and too often feeling that they didn’t get the what they needed.  Clients and researchers must share the responsibility for the success or failure of a focus group session.  Partnership and dialogue is at the heart of every successful focus group.
  2. Groupthink, polite bias and bully respondents sabotage the discussion –  Melissa McCarthy’s SNL skit in which she portrayed Linda, a crazed Hidden Valley Ranch taste test participanthilariously captures this point. “There’s a Hidden Valley Ranch party in my mouth,” she exclaims, at the prompting of the moderator who offers 50$ for the best quote. Linda aligns herself with a fellow participant who is being praised by the moderator and antagonizes the other — “We all hate you,” she tells her.  Funny on SNL, not in real life.  This is where experience matters.  We at Research & Incite Consultants prefer smaller focus groups because it allows for more control. We hold our sessions in a relaxed, lounge style setting so we can observe body language and eliminate seating position influence.  Our moderators are skilled at recognizing and managing groupthink as well as controlling or disruptive respondents. We also know when to recommend a different approach altogether (IDI’s, Pairs/Triads, On-line Bulletin Boards) if we believe that groupthink will be inevitable. As a rule, we always re-screen participants in the waiting room to ensure that someone like ‘Linda’ never makes it into the group in the first place.
  3. Participants aren’t honest in a focus group setting –  To quote Clotaire Rapaille “my experience is that most of the time, people have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. They have no idea, so they’re going to try to make up something that makes sense”.  In other words, participants are being as honest as they can be, in the moment, within the construct of what is happening in the session and what they are being asked to evaluate. Similarly, in the words of Mad Men’s Don Draper following an internal focus group for Ponds that served up stereotypical results for the time (i.e. link Ponds to marriage) – “You can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved.  A new idea is something they don’t know yet so of course it won’t come up as an option.”  We hold Focus Groups to an unattainable standard when we expect participants to predict the anticipated behaviors of their future selves based on their past behaviours, operating outside the real-life context in which such a behavior would occur.
  4. You can’t measure results so what’s the point? – In fact, that is THE point.   In its most fundamental form, qualitative answers the ‘why’ that is so often elusive and absent in the larger scale data set of quantitative results.  Let’s face it, adults are rational beings and brand managers are held to task on their sales figures.  The nebulous, touchy-feely world of qualitative is downright scary to most but that doesn’t mean it has no validity.  The well-known motivational researcher of the postwar era, Ernest Dichter, often said, “Insight is my answer.”  At Research & Incite Consultants, our entire approach is based on and motivated by the search for the elusive consumer insight.
  5. The consumer can’t give me the answer – I agree, they can’t GIVE you THE answer. They can however, lead you down the path of insights, point you to some truths along the way and guide you to a world of possibilities.  It’s then up to the researcher to interpret these valuable inputs and translate them into strategic, actionable recommendations.  Think of it as a journey to the answer(s) using a clearly defined roadmap, with opportunities to veer off the path and still arrive at the right destination.

I believe that focus groups are alive and well, and dare I say, even flourishing sometimes because of, and often despite the new world order.

Long live the focus group!