Three Things Only Focus Groups Can Do

If you do focus groups long enough, you will end up having to defend them. In fact, you will end up having to defend them many times. And, so I was sitting this week listening to someone who was tired of focus groups. He wanted something new, different, something that put him in touch with real people.

Much of what passes for focus group criticism is simply wrong-headed; it is based on poorly conducted and poorly interpreted research. But, it is also fair to respond to the notion that focus groups are tired and old, that fresh insight require fresh methods.

Just like a good bath, everyone needs something new once in a while, but let me point out the three things that only focus groups can do.

  • Embrace the debate. Don't worry about the one guy who dominated the group. The world is awash in conflicting messages. If your idea can't stand the assault in a group, how well will it do in the real world? Last night I observed seven people who praised the taste and quality of one product be brought back down to earth by that one woman who said all she cared about was price. Perhaps, that's the right proportion -- one price message out weighs seven quality claims. My client and I certainly will be thinking about it. And, remember that an effective moderator can stimulate this kind of back and forth. No other method yields this kind of debate.

  • Embrace the artificiality. When you are in someone's home watching them prepare dinner, only you can see what they are doing. You are stuck with their reality. It can be marvelously illuminating. But, within reason you cannot swap out the entree on the fly. You can't see what isn't there. You can't understand the meal ritual without seeing the meal ritual. But, in a focus group I can use a bit of misdirection. I can turn what I really care about into a dependent variable. I can present packaging variations and have consumers taste the different product (all the same, of course). They discuss the "different" taste experiences. Voila, they have distinguished among packaging variations without knowing that was my purpose.

  • Embrace the chaos. My last group in a series is almost never like my first. Part of this is simple mechanics. I learn the questions that work and the questions that fall flat. I pick up on consumer language and integrate it into my probes. But the real source of the change from beginning to end is that the team is constantly thinking and retooling our hypotheses and stimulus. Concepts are revised. New ones are created. To be sure, this is more productive. We are not simply collecting data, amassing observations. We are growing and changing.

If you accept these three unique qualities of a focus group, you will be well rewarded and realize the well-conducted focus group study will always have a place in your research toolbox.