Bad Focus Groups. Never do them.

Bad focus groups are the norm. Our research arm, Resultant Research, won’t let us conduct focus groups. When you tell the world about the virtues of frankness, the self-imposed prohibition seems entirely right to me. I think, when you consider what Resultant tells us, you will agree.

bad focus groups

Our global research experts at Resultant stress to us that focus groups are NEVER projectable to the population you are studying. I know all of us with experience in research know this. The problem is, according to Resultant, that we all seem to forget that fact when evaluating the focus group’s results. As a result, bad focus groups dominate the field.

“If you have a problem resisting the lure of chocolate, don’t eat that first piece”, says JoAnne Cross, President of Resultant. She adds, “In all of my years of experience, I have not met anyone who does not try to make projections based upon a focus group. There are better ways to gather that information.”

Bad Focus Groups Outnumber Good Focus Groups

Resultant has always told us that another problem with focus groups is the clouded vision you get is based upon group mentalities. There is just no way around this. Moderators claim to be able to navigate this deep problem but knowing human behavior as we do we know that no one can.

bad focus groups
Don’t insert a square peg in a round hole

Just this morning, NPR did a spot on peer pressure in high schools. The findings are quite interesting when thinking about focus groups because it highlights the power of peer pressure.

The study showed that high school students were much less likely to take a pre-SAT course when the enrollment was done in standard high school classes. When the same opportunity was given in honors classes, the same student segments were signing on to the class by over 10%.

Better students were less likely to sign up for the class in a standard class and poorer students were much more likely to sign up in honors classes. The reason? Peer pressure. So just to fit in, both groups of students changed important behaviors based upon the context of the offering.

In my many years of research experience, I have seen this phenomenon first hand. No moderator can get someone to reveal a contrarian insight that the attendee holds closely if the focus group holds a different and more vocal opinion.

I remember conducting one-on-one interviews for Blue Rhino a few years back. An interviewee confided in us that he refilled his tank rather than exchanging it. What was interesting was his reasoning. “I know it may seem stupid,” he said, “but I feel like I own the tank.”

His self-effacing comment that he knew it sounded stupid (which it did not) told me in no uncertain terms that he would never have shared that in a group. It turned out to be the number one barrier to adoption of the Blue Rhino model when tested in projectable. quantitative studies that followed.

bad focus groups
What does the target believe?

Remember the movie 12 Angry Men?  Henry Fonda’s character holds out a minority opinion in the face of overwhelming pressure by the other jurors. In the end, they all agree with Fonda and the defendant is acquitted. It is great drama because it hardly ever happens.

The importance of qualitative research cannot be overestimated. We always conduct one-on-one interviews so that peer pressure does not enter into the findings.

Remember the adage that you always get what you pay for? Well bad focus groups are cheap and the findings are questionable at best.

If you need research, don’t conduct focus groups.

We don’t do focus groups

Every single brand project we do at Stealing Share includes market research. But that research never includes focus groups. We don’t use them and neither should you. They are not research in that they are never projectable and there are much better ways to gain qualitative research learnings.

Here is the basic problem with focus groups. The results are not in anyway projectable to the target market and yet we too often forget this fact when evaluating them. Worse still, they often represent a group mentality and few if any purchase decisions are made in groups. When you need to understand the language and feelings about your brand, one-on-one interviews are a better means to hear them. In a one-on-one interview, there are no group dynamics to diffuse and almost no risk of misinterpreting the findings as projectable.

Focus FroupMany years ago, I remember work we did for a large company that sold a consumable product in the US market. Until we worked on its brand, the company marketed its product on safety and convenience — two attributes that applied to the entire category. Why? Well, focus groups had told them that these were the two reasons for purchase. The head of marketing in this company knew there was something more important than those two generic benefits and he hired us to identify them (find out more here about great research).

I remember well one of the first one-on-one interviews we conducted. The interviewee started the statement with the following nine words: ”I know it may sound stupid but I believe…” It was the first of many insights that we later tested in projectable quantitative research. What makes those words telling is that they are NEVER shared in focus groups because no one wants to admit anything about themselves to a group that willingly shows them in anything but a favorable light.

So think about this. You will have no idea as to the direction your brand must take to steal market share, if your research does not include a quantitative component that is projectable and has a methodology that protects it from bias (in other words it is not an online study or one that is administered via email) and is limited to focus groups.

If the focus group hates the ideas, remember it is not a projectable sample. Even worse, if they love the idea…remember it is not a projectable sample. In other words, either outcome can be and is often false. So don’t use those focus group outcomes. If your research company recommends them, find another partner and do it right.

Focus groups are not research. Anyone who uses them is self-deceiving.

They have in their nature and name the word “group” and group dynamics are very different from the intimate nature of how human beings actually prefer one product over another. It is a fact that we all act and speak differently in a group than we do in private. Yet, the private moments are when purchase decisions are made.

Focus-Group1One client that hired us told us that they had already done focus groups and that we could skip the qualitative portion (the one-on-one interviews we require before going into the field with quantitative research) and save money.

Luckily, they listened to our reasoning and we conducted our familiar one-on-one interviews (and they ended up growing their market share by 18%).

A most revealing insight was repeated over and over again that we later tested and turned out to be the highest emotional intensity in the category. Yet, it had never been voiced in any of the dozens of focus groups conducted previously. The reason was very simple because everyone who mentioned it started the sentence timidly by saying, “I know it may seem silly but I believed…” There you have it. No one wants to appear silly in front of a group.

Focus groups may be less expensive but in our experience they will cost you more than you bargained for. (Listen here to a short interview we gave about focus groups.)