Doug Garnett’s Blog


Don’t Underestimate the Value of Focus Groups

Don’t Underestimate the Value of Focus Groups

A recent post discussed how powerful focus groups are for guiding advertising development. And, why most arguments against them are, frankly, silly.

So why do we hear so much negativity about groups? Some people get tremendous political or new business gain from saying bad things about groups. Others don’t like the uncomfortable truths found with good research.

But that’s not the whole reality. There are significant errors in how some companies and agencies use focus groups. Here are some key thoughts from 25 years of research…

…People in focus groups are most productive when they are responding to things you show them or ideas you put before them. Pictures, statements, video clips, physical items, etc. Without this material, group discussion can become little more than an unedited Twitter feed.

…As long as they are mostly on topic, let the people talk! I’ve seen moderators handcuff themselves to stepping through moderator guides. This is entirely counter-productive. The moderator we use has tremendous liberty to follow discussion and always ensures that we learn what we need to. With this freedom, she gets us more learning and we are able to do more with what we learn.

…Deal with important topics. Even in phone research I find that consumers have a BS meter for importance. People will dig deeper and give you surprising value when they are dealing with the important issues. On the other hand, if you ask silly questions you get silly answers.

…As a result, groups are a poor place to compare minor textual variations in marketing department positioning statements. As a guiding light, use some wisdom from direct response advertising: never test whispers.

…Research learning helps us make responsible decisions with insight and confidence. That’s what they are for. Unfortunately, many companies and agencies use focus groups to avoid responsibility by asking consumers to design products or to create ads in focus groups. This may help with corporate politics. But don’t do it. It’s our job to make tough choices.

…Never rely on group transcriptions . The value of any comment can only be determined by sensitive observers who witness/view the group dynamics. Transcripts let teams cherry pick comments which good researchers would ignore – usually picked for reasons of corporate politics or to avoid tough choices. (We carefully transcribe selected segments when our reports are going to be read by readers when English isn’t their primary language.)

…Groups should be used to learn whether ads change perceptions and move people toward purchase. Never use groups to determine if people “like” your advertising. The mere term “like” always takes discussion into the weeds.

…Moderator, moderator, moderator. Since group dynamics are the sole reason you’re using focus groups, having the right moderator to tap into those dynamics is critical. Most importantly, you need a moderator who is fully versed in your product or service, understands the marketing implications of your medium and who can think on their feet and utilize the right techniques at the right moment to take the group where it needs to go. And you need a moderator who can help consumers reveal deeply buried or carefully guarded opinions.

…Respondents, respondents, respondents. With a good moderator in place, getting the right respondents is critical. If you don’t have the right people, you won’t find reliable learning. This, is not as easy as it sounds.  A great recruiter, the right specifications, an fool-proof screener and much more are all critical to getting the right respondents.

Above all, the key to focus groups is to respect the consumer. The people who attend your groups aren’t perfect. And they never know everything you wish they knew (and that’s important learning of it’s own). But if you have a good moderator and good recruiting, I find that they express what they know, think, and feel with the right intentions.

Sometimes, respondents comments can make agencies and clients angry. This anger shouldn’t be directed at the participants. If you never find yourself frustrated by what you hear, you are not digging deep enough and are not open to the extraordinary truths groups can help you learn.

In fact, what you hear from groups should sometimes be humbling. After all, marketing is a very theoretical discipline. And at some point, theory has to face reality. There are few ways to learn where theory and reality come together as well as in focus groups.

Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett

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