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.
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.
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.
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.