There has been a lot of talk recently about the ‘death’ of focus groups.  They’re frequently criticised for being an out-dated methodology, surpassed by new innovations in technology and in methodology.  They’re seen as ‘too System 2’, too rational.  Not an accurate read on behaviour.  Subject to biases and social norming.  Clearly flawed and unusable.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  I definitely still think the ‘classic’ focus group has a role.   But they need to be used in the right way.

And so often they’re not.   Many of the limitations levelled at FGDs are due to using them in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.  Asking consumers to do things that are not able to do or make decisions that aren’t consumer decisions. Asking them for opinions, attitudes, in place of finding out about their behaviours or their emotions.

However, my biggest frustration is the trend of people taking what the consumers say as the ‘output’ not the ‘input’ to the research.

I’ll restate – what consumers say in a group should only EVER be used as the ‘input’ to the research and analysis process.  It should never be considered the ANSWER or the ‘output’.

This is the old ‘faster horse’ argument.  Which comes from an incorrect assumption of how consumer input should be used.

We should not be asking consumers to do our jobs.  As consumers, they are not in the position to directly tell us:

  • who the product should be aimed at
  • how much it should cost
  • should we go with this widget or that one
  • how the ad should be made
  • what colour the product should be
  • etc etc etc

The consumer has not got a background in marketing, product management, advertising or research.  They can tell us their thoughts as consumers, based on their experiences and their lives, but it is up to us as the professionals to take this feedback and apply our experience and good sense to then sort the truth from the gaff.

We are the ones with the experience and skills to look deeper, understand the difference between what people say and what they do, understand the impact of biases on their responses, the heuristics people use (that they don’t even know about).  Once we analyse all of this, we can make recommendations and move forward.  We are the ones that can listen to consumers complain about slow horses, or a desire for a faster one, and think – ‘Hey, maybe there’s another way of solving that unmet need’.

Ultimately, this is why we are, and should be, moving our groups away from attitudes and beliefs and explore more about emotion.  Less direct questioning and more projective techniques. Research as a whole is moving away from consumer opinion, and more towards behaviour.

Groups should only be used when they’re appropriate. If you’re after insights into behaviour, groups are not going to get you the best output. There are many situations where online, ethnography or some other format of research (like Quant!), is better suited to get you the answers you need! But if you’re looking to harness a group dynamic to build on ideas – there’s still nothing better.

And, if you’re still asking people ‘what they think’, and then taking that as the full answer… you’re in the wrong profession.






This post was originally published as “The Death of Focus Groups has been Greatly Exaggerated”

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