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Tuesday, 01 December 2015

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.

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Readers' comments (10)

  • Interesting... from the recruiter perspective, we do use 'focus group' as a lazy catch-all, because it is part of the language and easily understood. When reaching out to new potential participants we have to engage them on terms that they at least think they understand... although we know from the feedback they give us, they find the interactions in a truly qualitative and creative group discussion situation the most rewarding and interesting to take part in

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  • Interesting and brave but I am not convinced by the recommendation. Definitely correct to say that the distinction between focus and discussion group is blurred on researchers and therefore completely lost on clients. However I think we need to avoid arguing about definitions and focus on the key issue highlighted in this article regarding evolution in client expectations. Including - respondents that are over-intensively profiled before research, questions that try to quantify qualitative insights (a bad habit from the US), over-reliance on quotes, subjective elimination of respondents based on 'not being in the right group'. These habits have emerged from an over-reliance on groups to aid decision making rather than to inform and enrich the research process prior to validation. In turn that stems from poor research planning and poorly managed expectations.

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  • A lot here that makes sense, but to me the key message is that the world has changed. People who work with us (don’t like the respondent word) are very different from the naive ‘empty vessels’ I used to encounter when I started out. They expect a level of transparency and relevance that’s a problem for the artificial environment of the focus group/group discussion. Clients too have moved on from being happy to spend the odd evening behind the glass peering at the human exhibits, and are looking for a more interactive and collaborative experience. Happily technology and new thinking is allowing us to apply our experience and skills in this changed world. Focus groups, group discussion etc. still matter and should be championed, but to me they will never be as important as they once were.

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  • I always use the term 'discussion group' as feel it is a much better and more inclusive description of what actually happens. As others have pointed out, the phrase 'focus group' has almost become a joke in the political sector - for those of you who have watched the political satire series 'In The Thick Of It' - I'm sure you will know what I mean.

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  • I'm not sure that politicians have ever wanted anything more than focus groups to validate their own opinions. However the role of the non-directive discussion group is still essential to many clients.
    I think Deborah and Merry are highlighting two very important points, (i) the discussion group and its process can elicit extraordinary insight and findings (ii) when executed by professionals.
    We should champion not only the discussion group itself but the professionals who undertake them.
    I'm not sure it matters that we haven't created a taxonomy of skills (although I have listed 26 reasons to use a professional researcher this afternoon) but it does matter than we seldom even bother to communicate why we are good at what we do and why our skills set result in better research.
    No more back-room modesty for me....I'm a research consultant not a moderator!

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  • Hooray! At last someone has taken the time to respond to the barrage of often uninformed criticism that groups have come under recently. Many of us have seen them reported as dead and buried many times over our careers, and whilst developments in technology and methodologies, combined with greater understanding of human behaviour mean they are not the catch all technique they once were, they still remain an invaluable methodology. They have their strengths and weaknesses, and they are more appropriate for some briefs than for others - but the same can be said of any methodology (despite the claims of some of the more militant online evangelists). Our skill as researchers is to select the right combination of methodologies from the huge range we have available to us now, and to make sure that they are all done properly, by trained, experienced researchers.

    Thanks for the article. Those of us who use group discussions well (alongside online, mobile, film, semiotics, neuro, and other stuff so cutting edge it doesn't have a name yet) need to be far more bullish about their benefits.

    The focus group is dead. Long live the group discussion!

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  • Interesting take. I do, as a client, understand and appreciate the usefulness of the group discussion (focus group is way too political). However, I am constantly dismayed at recognising professional respondents in groups. This has been talked about for many years and yet it still continues. Why?
    Until this is seriously addressed the credibility of qual research will continue to be seriously eroded.

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  • I agree with Phil, that the bigger point here is that the world has changed-and the 'fightback' by MR is way way bigger than whether the 'focus group' is dead or not. The role of groups feels like a drop in the ocean in that whole debate. That said, discussion groups still have a role to play- frankly how can they not, when essentially we're talking about getting people together face to face and chatting with them. That will never disappear. But for me the key thing is that we're able to take a much more nuanced approach to groups these days, and to be much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, vs other approaches. We should also be thinking about how groups can be evolved and adapted in light of new thinking. And skill counts for a huge amount too- both in moderation and interpretation: the same methodology in the hands of someone unskilled vs someone very able and experienced can result in hugely divergent levels of quality.

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  • Great piece. I can't think I have ever seen the offer of a training course in how to prepare and moderate a focus group as opposed to a discusion group. I think the front loaded backend loaded distinction is a useful one. And would make it easier to manage clients' expectations. My suspicion is that without the back end of analysis the product might be harder to cost justify. Will the client pay for proper front end prep with almost no analysis?

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  • Very interesting topic. I'm a qualitative researcher not a moderator and that makes the difference. but - very often - when client (foreing MR agency etc.) ask me for a research they call me "moderator" because they want only moderation and they do not like someone who can analyze deeper the problem and give advice. after all they pay only for moderation ....... but - for me - it is very difficult to escape from my "researcher soul". Different is with direct client (no MR agency): they really like to have a researcher that help them to understand better their plus and minus, insight, etc. In this case I feel that I am a professionist that can give interpretation and new idea. but ..... work is work and in this period it is ok either being a moderator or a researcher.

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