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What they never tell you about a Focus Group

Originally used over 65 years ago by US government sociologists investigating the effectiveness of military propaganda movies, the focus group has been the backbone of the market research industry for years.

It wasn't long before advertising agencies were jumping on the bandwagon hiring psychologists to find out why certain kinds of products and services were appealing. The focus group gained popularity because its format prompted the participants to explain their reasons and motivations behind product appeal, recall and ultimately purchase. The use of focus groups grew, especially amongst politicians as policy setting instruments. Focus groups even gained credence in academic research despite having no standard methodology for the gathering or capture of the outputs produced. It looked like the focus group was irreplaceable.

So what are the downsides that people in the industry prefer not to mention, or claim vigorously to (somehow) overcome?

Well one obvious issue is that it is very difficult to elicit people’s real motivations in a group situation. In his recent Slate Magazine article, "Lies, Damn Lies and Focus Groups?" Daniel Gross challenges the efficacy and benefit of focus groups for informing product development and advertising. He highlights the widely documented mismatch between what people convey about product concepts in focus groups, and the way they genuinely behave when it comes to making purchases. This one question alone could be costing companies millions in irrelevant product development and misplaced marketing.

The second problem is that the participants’ inputs are inevitably influenced and often pre-framed by the facilitator and their questions. This is called Observer Dependency. Then, the outputs are filtered and shaped by the Facilitator’s subjective interpretations of what the group says and does. To compound the problem further, participants may hold back or try to provide the answers that are wanted by the facilitator.

Those issues might already be ‘taboo’ but there is another issue increasingly affecting Focus Group methodology; the 'Focus Groupie'. This is an industry term used to describe people who, for whatever reason, spend their spare time participating in focus groups. You can't really blame them, the promise of £30 or more and a free meal is very engaging for some. But worryingly, for many of these opportunist opinion givers there is more to it than that. Yesterday they were acting like gin lovers, today they are assuming their notion of cautious supporters of animal rights, tomorrow who knows? Yet, in the words of one such 'focus groupie' the only thing they have in common is that "after a while the stories don't seem like lies - more like acting - and it's quite fun to pretend to be someone else".

The industry is not laughing. In a recent issue of Research the magazine of the Market Research Society (UK) the problem was front page news. And what about the clients who pay for this false and potentially ambiguous information? Torben Jessen, Saga's Research Manager said that we should be concerned about professional respondents because; "The issue cuts to the credibility of research".

A study into this problem carried out by BMRB between November 1999 and March 2000 found that: One in ten people who had taken part in a focus group within the previous 12 months had done so at least three times that year.
One in a hundred people had 16 or more visits.

That's one focus group misled every three weeks. The only thing we know for sure is that the trouble is getting worse not better. Liz Sykes, committee member of the UK's Association for Qualitative Research commented "nobody really knows the scale of the difficulty". Yet, whatever the scale, it's the advertisers who pay for the research and they are counting the cost. It's no surprise that many are now moving away from the old focus group model.

Perhaps it's no surprise that modern approaches are increasing their market share dramatically. As an illustration, the move to online qualitative/quantitative research has doubled in the last three years. The reasons for this are understandable. It's quick, economical and by using in-house data, can tap into existing customers and prospects who have already embarked upon the desired behaviour.

And it is perfect for adding insights to Customer Experience.

For many marketers it now seems a much better option to eliminate the 'focus groupie' fraudsters and replace them with ‘the voice of the customer’; investigate people’s actual behaviours not hypothetical ones; do so ‘one on one’ with more opportunity to identify underlying motivations and gain objective insights not those filtered or shaped by a facilitator.
With new psychometric models and systems becoming increasingly accessible, they offer opportunities for affordable, fast, meaningful insights that can be applied directly and pragmatically in marketing situations.

The leading UK magazine Marketing reported recently that for Sainsbury's Bank:
"Marketing consultancy ESP is running and analysing an online questionnaire included in the bank's monthly e-zine, which is e-mailed to the customer database. The bank wants to build a clearer picture of consumers' product purchasing behaviour, using psychographic data."
Harnessing the Voice of the Customer is the way forward.
And it’s a 'focus groupie' free zone.