FEATURE1 June 2010

Group dynamic

In 1999 Rover bragged about ignoring focus group findings, and Research questioned whether focus groups had a future. Eleven years later, focus groups thrive and we all know what happened to Rover. Dominic Scott-Malden asks, where did it all go right for research?

In 1999 Rover boasted in a billboard campaign that its latest car had been ‘rejected by focus groups’. Research picked this out as a new low in the public’s perception of focus groups and splashed a photo of the poster across its cover with the headline ‘What future for focus groups?’ (read our 1999 article in full here). It may be hard for young researchers to imagine the furore that this poster created in the research community back in 1999. The media had seized upon focus groups as a stick with which to beat New Labour. It became a favourite taunt of journalists (who, perhaps felt threatened by this new and mysterious force) that the government had no ideas of its own and simply did what focus groups said. At the same time advertising agencies, brand owners and researchers (who had been using group discussions since the 1960s), were feeling uncomfortable about the adoption of groups by politicians and were on the look-out for misunderstanding and misuse. The stage was set for a spat.

No laughing matter
Looking back more than ten years on, one’s first impulse is to laugh. It’s hard to believe that people would have any clue what Rover were talking about - then or now. The rationale, as explained by a company spokesman at the time, was to target “junior and upper management” who wanted to believe that they were choosing something that was at the fringes of what the uncultured masses would approve of or understand. Even so, anyone with even a minimal belief in low-involvement processing would be concerned about putting the word ‘rejected’ next to a new car model. As a piece of communication it was disastrous (as they would have found out had they run it through a few focus groups). Surely the only people who would have understood it would be those working in advertising, marketing or the media – who were never going to see the new Rover 75 as a serious competitor to their BMWs, Audis and Mercedes anyway.

Stab in the back
We market researchers thought the ad was black treachery on the part of the advertising agency who created it. Advertising agencies have always been ambivalent about focus groups. Some have been champions, some have been hostile, many have been friends to qualitative research. But here was an agency, launching a new car model, proud that it had been ‘rejected’ by focus groups. All those concerned should have known better than to use the word ‘rejected’, which implies a simplistic view of focus groups as a ‘pass or fail’ test. Did they seriously mean that every single person who came to their focus groups ‘rejected’ the new design? And they were proud of that? Of course they didn’t, they must have been lying. No wonder we despised them. No wonder we were proud to be doing group discussions long after Rover went to the wall, along with its enormous advertising account.

In fact, as the original article made clear, the poster was not meant to be an insult to focus groups per se. The headline (flawed though it was) meant to suggest that ‘most people will not like it’, which would entice the more discerning buyer. To anyone who remembers Rover as the most conventional middle management car in the golf club car park it was an absurd strategy, but it does at least make one feel better to know that they did not mean to be offensive to focus groups.

“Think of the quotation attributed to Henry Ford: ‘If I’d asked what my customers wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’ The idea is that ordinary people (the sort who go to focus groups) are too stupid to recognise real innovation when they see it”

Creative muscle
In 2010, the debate over focus groups goes on. There is a particularly pervasive story about the genius who ignores ‘focus groups’ and only trusts his ‘gut instincts’. The role is currently assigned to Steve Jobs of Apple, but it has had various champions over the years. Think of the quotation attributed to Henry Ford: ‘If I’d asked what my customers wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’ The idea is that ordinary people (the sort who go to focus groups) are too stupid to recognise real innovation when they see it, so they will give you wrong answers. But this is essentially an argument about all market research, and it continually butts up against the realities of business life, where corporations regard consulting their customers as an essential part of the process, and every guru advises you to get closer to your customer, not further away. Even Alan Sugar makes his apprentices talk to customers, and he is not a man who lacks faith in his own judgement. Steve Jobs may find he does not need focus groups any more than Henry Ford did, but for most companies they are essential.

So group discussions continue to flourish in spite of the ‘focus groups are for wimps’ machismo of Steve Jobs and others. But they have certainly evolved.

The workshop approach
It has become more common to invite clients in from behind the mirror to join the action in ‘workshops’. Consumers have been invited to help create ideas and stimulus as well as respond to them, in ‘co-creation’. We frequently get participants out of their chairs and moving around the room, to keep them stimulated and acting less self-consciously. These different kinds of sessions are essential for projects where we need to generate ideas and materials as well as research them. They have also allowed qualitative researchers to vary the type of group sessions and to include something new and different, which is good for business as well as for participants.

Groups have always been supplemented with depth or paired interviews but this is perhaps more common than it used to be. My own favourite is filmed in-home depths, where you interview someone in their own home, so you see their thoughts and feelings in the context of their home and family, which gives a deeper understanding especially for subjects like finance.

Focus groups have evolved in less obvious ways as well. Their enormous power is that they are a way of listening to the customer. But if you listen to the customer they may say things you do not want to hear. They may not like your brand, your products, your packaging, your advertising or your tone of voice. Perhaps in the olden days (although I doubt it) this would have been reported as a simple ‘rejection’. Nowadays it would just be the starting point of the project.

The changing role of qual
Qualitative researchers have become more like business coaches or consultants. Yes, we acknowledge barriers and challenges, but mainly our job is to look for solutions. Generally we are looking for the small change that makes a big difference, the way that brands can be repositioned, the way that barriers can be overcome.

Technology in general (which turned out to be the real story of the last decade) has been more of a problem than an opportunity for focus groups and other group sessions. They mix like oil and water.

Nowadays people can watch the groups all over the world through their computer, while multi-tasking and eating their lunch. People can come to viewing facilities and watch groups while catching up on their emails and Facebooking. But a bigger audience for the actual process of the groups has not been beneficial. It may be good for the team, but there is a price to pay in terms of the quality of the research. People feel inhibited with a crowd watching or if they know they are on TV. That’s human nature (a subject on which qualitative researchers are something of an authority).

Of course, there have also been innovations in actually doing groups online. But unlike quant research, the progress of doing qualitative groups online has been uncertain to say the least. For many practitioners and clients the whole point of groups is being face to face with customers, so online is a non-starter. Others have experimented and found some positives. For instance it has become possible to do pre-tasks online, and to follow up issues via email, which is good. Getting consumers to take photos and send in video can be valuable. However, I think we can safely say that most groups are not going online any time soon, and that online will continue to be more dominant in quant than in qual.

The real threat from technology comes from the way that it is changing all work, not just focus groups. Instead of ushering in an age of more time, where researchers could really take their time to think about things and deliver quality, the only effect of technology has been to speed things up but dumb them down. This is dangerous for qualitative research where the key skills (face-to-face moderating, listening, thinking, writing, presenting) all take time to get right.

So focus groups have evolved since 1999. But what strikes me most clearly looking at the poster after eleven years is how little things have changed for focus groups compared to how much they have changed for Rover. Focus groups, workshops, co-creation sessions and qualitative research in general continue to flourish because companies want to have an open, revealing and exploratory conversation with their existing and potential customers. And if Rover wanted to have a laugh about that, who’s laughing now?


Viewpoints on the focus group

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Michelle Harrison, CEO, TNS-BMRB
In the early New Labour period the focus group was pilloried in the press, but I think there has been a huge evolution over the past decade. I’ve never had any sense that the public are dismissive of them, and we don’t have any problem at all recruiting people. It’s less and less common to be commissioned to do straightforward focus group work – we might do work that involves bringing people together in a room but we might do a series of groups, giving respondents time to reflect, absorb and reconvene, or we might use pre-work in a different way, or introduce different techniques to get the best out of the time. With online tools and social media we’ve got more capability than we’ve ever had, which means the conversations we have to reach the best solution are getting longer and longer.

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Andy Cooper, associate director, Razor Research
Focus groups were very much associated with politics and spin in a negative way in the Blair years, but the public are less sceptical than they used to be. As for the clients, good ones recognise the limits of focus groups but also the benefits. It’s a very small sample, it’s an unnatural environment, but it can be a great way of getting a few consumers hothousing their thoughts and opinions, and that’s no bad thing if it’s used properly. Online tools have their place in the toolbox but I don’t think online focus groups are a replacement, because very little of our communication is verbal. When you’re a moderator you feel when people sit forward to an idea or when there’s a buzz. You can see things that are happening before people even start talking. I don’t think ‘online focus group’ is a very helpful term because it’s not the same thing.

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Kate Waddell, MD, consumer brands, Dragon Rouge
People from the outside the industry, if they even know about the concept of a focus group, sometimes think that clients use groups to tell them what to do next or to make their decisions for them, rather than just getting a read from consumers. Some clients tend to err towards that side of things but the majority use groups in an intelligent way. We have a technique where we’ll have a diary room where people can go on their own and give their own view – there are ways you can ape that self-publishing instinct people now have about brands. We also do ‘conflict groups’ where we deliberately have two different halves of the group with opposing views or behaviours. Insights are quite often driven out that way. There’s all sorts of different techniques clients are embracing because they realise they can expect more than they traditionally have.

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Kasia Gandhi, associate director, RS Consulting
At some point focus groups became so popular and when you thought ‘qual research’ you just thought ‘focus groups’, like they were the same thing. There was a need to explore other methodologies. So there was a moment, especially in consumer research, some time ago when there was a lot of talk about focus groups and how efficient they are, and I noticed quite a lot of clients trying to find alternatives to focus groups - reducing the number of participants or moving towards ethnography. But it’s still a very robust methodology and we still use it. We definitely see online focus groups as an addition – we would never substitute face-to-face groups with groups. You get loads of benefits - it’s faster, it’s easier, you can reach audiences all around the world. For kids and teenagers it’s great – if you’ve ever had the pleasure of moderating focus groups for teenagers, you’ll know it’s really difficult, but they love to type.


Dominic Scott-Malden spent 12 years in advertising, working at agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy before becoming a qual researcher in 1995. He headed the qual research department at Another Place and is now a director at Wardle McLean

2 Comments

10 years ago

The boundaries continue to blur. The future of qualitative is already here; it's what we do that will shape the tomorrow.

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10 years ago

I personally think the classic focus group (7 people, 2 hours, nibbles and orange juice) deserved its bad rep partly because the process had become so commoditised and thoughtlessly administered - very often by the ad agencies that decried them. Even now I've been finding that I get way more out of running two mini-groups of 3-4 people, than out of one "focus group" of 7. In part because you simply get double the listening time per respondent. Focus groups still miss something that surveys miss: a genuine sense of how people work with peers and family when it comes to consumer decisions. The focus group still recruits on the basis of finding a representative sample of INDIVIDUALS rather than an examples of actual CONSUMER SYSTEMS (i.e the main HH Shopper and her family and friends.) So we don't really get a full look at how consumers go about making their decisions. For that reason, ethnographic research, accompanied shops (HH Shopper and two friends) ought to be made more central. Focus groups have their uses, but I think we're damned foolish if we pat ourselves on the abck and think that they should account for 90% of qual work - which they currently do. Quallies have painted themselves into a box that needs to evolve. (Yeah, yeah, mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean.)

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