FEATURE1 January 2001

Soft focus

Having a go at focus groups has become a national pastime. Are researchers going off them too? Mike Savage investigates.

Has the public standing of the reviled ‘focus group’ hit a new low? Rover clearly has decided it can sell more cars if it tells buyers that its latest model was “rejected by focus groups”.

Focus group sniping, once the preserve of ad agencies, spread to the media in the wake of the 1997 general election. Now the practice has gained enough acceptability to feature in an advertising campaign by a major car company hoping to find favour with its target market.

Yet despite the bad press, or, some believe, because of it, focus groups (or group discussions, as they were once called) continue to grow in popularity.

“There’s a difference between the the climate of focus groups in the media and the marketplace. The media has just discovered them”

Rachel Ormrod

More than £50m was spent on ‘discussion groups’ last year by BMRA members, £3.5m more than 1997. “There’s a difference between the the climate of focus groups in the media and the marketplace,” says Rachel Ormrod, the new chair of the Association of Qualitative Research Practitioners. “The media has just discovered them.”

The media is publicly wrestling with its doubts over a methodology that the MR industry resolved when it first encountered groups 40 years ago, according to Ormrod. The growth figures show that the technique has established itself as “a respected, valued part of marketing activity”.

The expansion in qualitative research is two-fold: not only are new buyers coming to this market but existing buyers are buying more of it. Competition is stiffer than ever and many companies, seeking competitive advantage by connecting with customers, have started to invest much more in groups. “We are quite reliant on them,” says Gavin Emsden, Nestlé’s research manager for beverages. “Historically we tended to use them more with a project or a product focus. While we’re still doing that a lot, we’re also trying to get underneath the skin a bit.”

Every two months Emsden also runs an additional set of groups, not to look at any specific issues but to act as a sounding board on general issues from the public. What’s changed, Emsden points out, is that Nestlé now wants more from groups. Working in the dwindling coffee sector, it has a need to revisit the whole drinks market. “Perhaps we didn’t understand as much as we thought we did,” muses Emsden.

Although business confidence in the focus group remains unaffected by the baiting it receives outside the industry, some MR practitioners point out its limitations. Claire Thomas, director at Mosquito Research, feels it was “a methodology trotted out for any research objective”. It represents just one route to consumer understanding.

Mosquito has found demand increasing for a range of other qualitative techniques such as accompanied shopping or depth interviews, as well as variations on the basic focus group theme.
Though the techniques are scarcely new, they are being deployed now to satisfy requests from customer insight managers who do not just want to know customer opinions, but also their attitudes and motivations. “You want to get as close to the real life context as you can,” Thomas explains.

Quallies also have to keep an eye on the techniques they’re using to keep up with the modern consumer. Not only are they becoming increasingly marketing literate (“someone starts talking and you think, they could be working for us!” one buyer remarked) but jaded respondents familiar with the format stop contributing – a more pressing cause for change.

“That is why we are trying different approaches,” one buyer said. “Whether they’re ‘groupies’ or not, they’re not interested in it.”

For practitioners, one of the biggest headaches associated with focus groups is its name – an unwanted Americanism that has displaced the favoured term, group discussion. The best groups are those that encourage spontaneity, argues Geoff Bayley, a director at RDSi.

“The best people at moderating focus groups are ones who can create that spirit of spontaneity. You can’t do it with a crowded agenda. You can’t do it if you’re focused, which is why focus is wrong.” The media impression that focus groups are a means to get answers to set questions is only perpetuated by this label.

Whatever the current moves to hybrid techniques, Bayley (himself keen on friendship pairs) believes the essential idea, built around the group dynamic rather any particular . environment, is here to stay. “There is a basic strength in the basic technique which takes some beating.”

John Siddall, managing director at Reflexions Communications Research, who first watched groups while a junior planner at J Walter Thompson in the late 1960s, agrees. “They were not much different then. That was 31 years ago. I can’t see why they are going to be different in 30 years’ time.”

“It is moving to the state where it is an inquisition. People don’t find that enjoyable”

John Siddall

Siddall, too, cautions about moving too far from the basic template. “The original idea of the group discussion is to have a discussion. Now you are moving from one stimulus to the next with no chance to talk in between. I think people find this hard work and can’t wait to leave.”

The move by clients to extract as much value from each group as possible is harmful, Siddall believes. “It is moving to the state where it is an inquisition. People don’t find that enjoyable.”
Groups still constitute the lion’s share of qualitative spend. However, there is one aspect of groups that buyers are extremely concerned about – who it is they are speaking to. “The most critical thing is getting the recruitment right,” one buyer says. Clients are now after groups based on attitudes and lifestyle rather than demographics. “My biggest concern is mis-recruitment, not professional respondents.”

Says another buyer: “There is a need to get a better handle on respondents and to know more clearly who is attending your groups – are the groups your target audience?”

For one company at least, the answer appears to be no, if we are to believe the poster campaign – a PR exercise that has worked for Rover in terms of the attention it has drawn.

When quizzed about the negative message in the poster, a Rover spokesman said that when focus groups gave the thumbs-down to the design of the Rover 75 model, the company saw this as an endorsement because it wanted to target the car not at the general public but at junior and upper management – buyers who “don’t want themselves attributed to a medium of acceptability”. Focus groups “perform a perfectly good role but the role we wanted for this car is different”.

So what will be the lasting effect of this campaign? Researchers may question whether the person on the street connects the groups they attend with the ‘focus groups’ featured in the media. But focus groups are fast becoming public property. Whether that will ever affect the development of qualitative research, only time will tell.

We followed up this article in June 2010 with a cover feature looking back on how the focus group fared. Read it here.