The focus group fightback
Politicians and the media debased the term ‘focus group’ and made it synonymous with spin. Now is the time to reclaim and restore it, say Deborah Mattinson and Merry Baskin.
In politics today, you can’t move for talk of focus groups – though none of it is particularly positive. The former BBC political editor Robin Oakley once described focus groups as “the chicken entrails of modern politics”, while enemies of politicians everywhere set out to ensure the term became synonymous with political spin.
This portrayal of focus groups as a method of data manipulation went hand in hand with the assertion, made by some high-profile political advisers, that there was no need to train people in how to run focus groups, that there was no prescribed method or approach. Eight people in a room? Thirty people in a room? What does it matter?
It’s regrettable that we as an industry have allowed this to happen. By failing to challenge this false assumption we have damaged our own standing – and much more.
Nailing the difference
Let’s start with a quick history lesson. The dictionary defines focus groups as a research method that collects data through group interaction. Such elicitation techniques were first used by academics during the Second World War to test reactions to radio broadcasts. They were later adopted by commercial market researchers to understand the subconscious motives behind product consumption. They were then taken up by social researchers, especially for health strategy, and then from the 1980s they were used – and sometimes abused – by politicians.
Over the years two broad schools of thought have emerged. One leaned more towards the US, the other to Europe. The divide was between ‘cognitive’ and ‘conative’ philosophies. Qualitative research guru Mary Goodyear nailed the difference back in the 1990s, reminding us that the US-style focus group and the more European group discussion were different animals, distinctive in approach, usage and interpretation.
The focus group tended to be shorter, with more respondents – all primed to give straightforward answers to direct, closed questions. It offered individual responses – often by a show of hands – and instant analysis. Its purpose would be to get a clear read on a specific piece of stimulus. Observers would watch to get both a sense of the vernacular and proof of the validity of the outcomes.
By contrast, the group discussion was longer, with fewer respondents and a much more open, questioning style, encouraging the respondents to set the agenda and interact with one another. Projective techniques were used to gain a deeper understanding. Sensitive moderation was vital. While the workload for focus groups comes upfront, in providing thoughtful material to test, the workload for the group discussion, the detailed analysis, comes later.
Both techniques attracted fans and detractors – but they achieve very different things. The discussion group is most useful at an early, exploratory stage, while focus groups may be best used when a team already has considerable accumulated knowledge. Knowing which to use when takes experience and expertise. The problem we face nowadays is that the group discussion has all but disappeared and focus groups have evolved into a hybrid of the two approaches – often ill thought-through theatrical techniques aimed principally at the viewer behind the mirror, producing superficially analysed data.
Losing touch with our roots
It would be easy to blame politicians, their strategists or the media for this – but we only have ourselves to blame. We have failed to codify our processes, or create a taxonomy of skills. We failed to insist on formal qualifications. The omissions led to us losing not just our reputation for professionalism but also our sense of purpose.
“If we allow the focus group to subsume the group discussion we risk losing touch with our roots in the group dynamic. Our industry needs to act on this and act fast”
A number of factors have accelerated the process. The client has changed, with fewer trained clientside researchers. In adverse economic times the procurement tail wags the insight dog. Our clients are increasingly impatient for action points and less concerned about interrogating the data. Quick fixes have triumphed over depth and understanding of the problem.
Respondents have changed, too. In our interactive, digital world they have become so knowing, so marketing-savvy, so media-literate that it can be impossible to break through the conventional wisdom, cliché and post rationalisation that block the real creativity we need to unearth.
And we’ve changed. These days the roles of the moderator and the researcher are not always intertwined. Increasingly, one is seen as the poor relation of the other. This perception of different skills reflects, on the one hand, the urge for performance that often characterises the modern focus group and, on the other, the demand for objectivity – ignoring the advice of qualitative research guru Bill Schlackman, who said: “We should not be afraid of bringing ourselves into our work. Our role is not objectivity, but creativity and insight.”
If we continue to allow the focus group to subsume the group discussion we risk losing touch with our roots in the group dynamic. Our industry needs to act on this and act fast. It’s time to stop moaning about research techniques being hijacked and start getting more professional ourselves, by valuing our training and skills. We should think much more carefully about the purpose of each project – and how we can best add value and work in partnership with clients. We must stop using ‘focus group’ as a lazy catch-all ourselves and think how we can showcase the different techniques available.
Deborah Mattinson is co-founder of BritainThinks and Merry Baskin is founder of Baskin Shark. This article is an edited version of their presentation at the AQR/QRCA Conference in Rome in April.