Doug Garnett’s Blog


The Death of the Focus Group?

I’m tired of people giving credit to silly statements about focus groups. Focus groups are a powerful research methodology – certainly for the development of advertising. Like any research methodology, they can be mis-used. But well designed groups deliver outstanding insight.

The most common attack I hear suggests that focus groups are a problem because “people in focus groups influence each other”. Of course they do. In fact, that’s the whole point. We bring people in individually when we don’t want them to influence each other.

Groups developed because research experience (and fundamental human psychology) teaches us that people can only tap into certain depths and awareness by themselves. When people influence each other in focus groups, we find that deeply buried truths often emerge more clearly and more quickly. It’s not a perfect method, but used carefully it is extraordinary in what it can discover. Even better, I have found this information reliable enough to be used to guide decisions that risk millions.

Consider, by contrast, the ad biz’s latest fad: ethnographic research. True ethnographic research is purely observational. In other words, install cameras then review hours of tape to see what happened. Interesting, for analyzing minutiae in human physical behaviors (which is why it can help product design). It is a significant problem that subjects know they are being taped, usually know where the cameras are, and typically change their behavior as a result.

A cheaper version has consumers submit their own tapes of themselves and their activity. I won’t honor this idea with analysis except to note this is like an America’s Funniest Video call for video tapes on a topic.

In the end, it seems that a lot of people use pseudo-ethnographic research with researchers that parachute into a home to film, observe and interview. Account planners will tell you that ethnographic work discovers deeper stuff because consumers are put off by focus group rooms. But imagine that one, two or even three strangers (interviewer, account planner, client) descend on your home with a video camera. They “hang” with all the intimacy found when complete strangers drop in to talk about deep subjects while filming the conversation. And what do they discover? Much less than they usually claim.

On the other hand when one person says something in focus groups (anything – perhaps something not very enlightening), it may challenge another to dig a bit deeper. And that challenges a third person, and so on. Then after 10 minutes of good open discussion, we’ve uncovered truths that would not have been found without a group of peers. Of course, this also takes a research team with the skills to identify the important learning – who knows when to ignore the most powerful speaker in order to hear the most perceptive speaker. (Sadly, this is a rare skill in many agencies where the loudest often win the arguments.)

In the end, I have listened carefully to the stories about the “amazing things” found through new research approaches. We all need to keep open to changes in techniques. But what I find most often is these stories have nothing to do with methodology. They are the result of researchers and clients becoming open to receiving surprising truths.

That’s the real crime in research. All too often, it is conducted with political goals–to protect a job, to prove that the agency is right, to sell the boss on your ideas.

So the next time you are approached to do some radically new type of research, stop. Then ask yourself if it wouldn’t be more productive to ask for more challenging answers and more insightful results from the research you are already doing.

Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett

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