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FEATURE17 April 2013

Breaking the one-way mirror

Features

The Mix co-founder Tash Walker wants to put a stop to focus groups once and for all. She’s not the first to try. “But we will succeed,” she says, “because there’s no other option”.

Measured by the number of times people have tried to kill them off, you’d be forgiven for thinking that focus groups are the least popular of all research approaches. But despite numerous attempts on their ‘lives’, they remain alive and kicking.

Undeterred by such obvious resilience, Tash Walker of The Mix is having a go at putting a stop to them. Walker is fronting The Mix’s Campaign For Real Behaviour and “Death to Focus Groups” is one of its key slogans.

What’s the campaign all about and why are you pursuing this now?
Tash Walker:
The campaign is about taking a no-nonsense attitude to research. Often research methodologies have been designed to suit clients and moderators rather than focusing on the best way of understanding how people behave. Behavioural economics has opened up this debate, but it’s really just a fancy way of saying that research tends to over-rationalise people who tend to make decisions in an emotional way.  

Many people have tried to kill off focus groups before. What makes you think you’ll succeed?
TW:
Before The Mix I didn’t work in research, I worked in packaging and branding so my background is in communications. People have tried to kill focus groups before but without success because they have failed to see the job at hand as a job of communication. The methodology is the hygiene factor. More important is the principle of telling this story in an interesting enough way that people sit up, take notice and see an attractive alternative. You need clients and other agencies to start doing this before you can expect to see traction. Luckily we are starting to see both happening already. We will succeed because there is no other option. Research needs to change if it wants to thrive in the next generation of marketing activity.  

What if research buyers are happy with the status quo?
TW:
I don’t believe that there really is such a thing as a status quo in research anymore, but I accept that there are clients for whom this won’t be their cup of tea. However, we also know that there are plenty of others for whom research just simply isn’t working anymore.

“Traditional qual research has got away with murder in terms of fees for running mediocre focus groups”

In the campaign literature you say that real life is “alive and messy and social and irrational”. But it’s also complex and takes time to understand properly. How can we, as a sector, produce real insight into real behaviour in a time frame and at a price point that clients are willing to pay for?
TW:
One of my biggest bugbears of research when I was working in branding was that the budget for doing validatory research seemed like a massive expense compared to doing the campaign work itself. Traditional qual research has got away with murder in terms of fees for running mediocre focus groups. The solution to this is using lots of digital technology to get into people’s lives over time in a meaningful way.  

Instead of an hour, you get two weeks of a person’s life and all of the complexity that goes with it that can give campaigns real tension and strength early on, not just a bit of tinkering around the edges or – worse – meddling halfway through the creative process. In our experience, the price of doing this sort of work is comparable to running a six-to-eight group project, and often comes in a bit cheaper.

This is not a budget issue, this is about understanding how important insight can be when it is real and meaningful and you know what the hell to do with it at the end of the process.

22 Comments

6 years ago

I love this website and the stories on here are getting better every day! This person's own company website offers focus groups at the top of their lists of services yet argues they are a waste of time! Brilliant

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6 years ago

I think that this campaign is complete nonsense (and especially as the agency in question themselves offer focus groups at the top of the list of their capabilities!). Clients are short-changed when they use sub-standard moderators who in-turn use sub-standard recruitment. There's no status-quo in the industry - the approach must always dependent on the brief. When done well, groups remain hard to beat for value and insight.

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6 years ago

I can't see focus groups on the services list? Interesting article, whatever you think, at least they are not sat on the fence. I love the website as well!

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6 years ago

@sam @Jeroen is/was correct. 'Focus Groups' were listed under the services tab an hour ago. They've since been replaced by 'Friendship Triads'.

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6 years ago

Some good points and great for their business but I'm surprised at the lack of range in this article. It fails to discuss the many circumstances when digital methods just aren't available or how effective the visceral, human, immediate and creative the discssion format (focus group or otherwise is). And ... just how good 'talking' is at getting at and exploring emotions.

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6 years ago

I think a series of discussion groups would have identified that the website content wasn't appropriate for this article

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6 years ago

A pendant comments: A one way mirror is called, well, a mirror. All the viewing facilities I've ever seen have two way mirrors, with the room on one side in stygian gloom and the other brightly lit. GCSE Physics.

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6 years ago

I'm sorry Tash, but that's a bunch of BS! Your solution to killing focus groups is small types of qualitative research like triads, 2-week ethnographies with a handful of people, and semiotics (which is useless in market research)? I'm sorry, but your firm is serious trouble for the future. You may trick a few clients with big budgets to go for your process and probably a few advertising agencies because they love anything that is anti-research and looks pretty, but this business model won't last. You're simply offering the same things every other qualitative research firm offers and most clients actively choose to ignore because they're not helpful and the sample size is FAR too small to mean much. Also, your hypocrisy in offering focus groups (or now triads) on your site tells me everything I need to know about your knowledge of the industry.

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6 years ago

I guess they ran a focus group and renamed their service list

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6 years ago

Interesting choice of wording ... Friendship Triads. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triad_(underground_society)

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