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OPINION29 April 2013

Focus groups: Kill or cure?

Opinion

Engage Research’s Andy Barker explains why The Mix’s Tash Walker is wrong to try to kill off focus groups. They might smell a bit funny, he says, but they’re not dead yet.

This immediately begs the question of whether we are talking about focus groups per se or bad focus groups. However let’s accept the idea that in the most rational iteration of the focus group – with a logically constructed topic guide and a series of questions that ask people naively what they do, think and feel – we might be missing a trick. I am sure that there is plenty of this kind of superficial qual happening (and we can also debate why this might be, e.g. the trend for over-loading groups), but does this mean that we need to kill focus groups to cure qual?

The behaviourist attack on ‘traditional’ research is not a new one, but the idea that consumers – that is, people – are somehow incapable of any self knowledge and that the only way to usefully understand them is by observing their authentic behaviour seems to be both patronising and lacking credibility. Qual research has, over the years, employed an impressive arsenal of tools and techniques aimed at getting beneath or beyond the superficial response. They can’t all be wrong can they?

“The behaviourist attack on ‘traditional’ research is not a new one… and qual research has, over the years, employed an impressive arsenal of tools and techniques aimed at getting beneath or beyond the superficial response”

So if we are talking about poorly executed, over-rational, superficial, answer-accepting focus groups, then we agree wholeheartedly with Walker’s wish to kill this practice; but we don’t necessarily believe this means dispensing with the focus group completely. Indeed we do not agree that the focus group is dead; rather, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, “it just smells funny”.

With the right approach, the focus group can be transformed into an experiential event that engages all participants (consumers and clients) at a higher level than the often somewhat passive group discussion typically has. Adding in a bit of theatre is a great place to start. This is what we have been doing at Engage – “experientialising” our groups with a mix of gamification, stage management and more thoughtful use of venues.

A good example of this is a piece of work conducted for a TV channel. We positioned the project as a viewer event rather than a research project, and built the experience around what the TV company could offer – its studios, the cameras, the presenters etc. It was still essentially a focus group, but with a twist.

Alternative venues can also be used to add an edge of excitement and “specialness” to a project by allowing client teams to mingle with respondents without the barrier of the focus group mirror, or by using a mix of good old-fashioned moderated discussions with a range of co-creation tasks, as well as questioning techniques that draw from education theory and classroom practice to engage with different communication styles.

“Aha”, I hear you say, “that’s no longer a focus group, it’s a workshop”. And yes, while we might use workshop techniques and structure sessions by a series of tasks, rather than using the classic funnelled discussion guide, the core of the focus group approach remains intact. It’s still about getting a group of consumers together to discuss a range of issues, to respond to stimuli, to reflect on their motivations, to share their experiences and debate attitudes.

The fact that research needs have evolved does not mean that we should have a great big qual bonfire of the vanities. There’s life in the focus group yet.

7 Comments

6 years ago

Thanks, Andy, for allowing me to cross off an item from my "to do" list. I was planning to respond to Tash Walker's piece but you've done it for me. In short, I heartily agree with your comments, with the possible exception of groups smelling a bit 'funny'. I also believe it's not the time to kill off viewing facilities: they still feature highly in our industry. They are expanding in the UK, and business is not witnessing a downturn. Qualitative research is, however, becoming more innovative. Long may that continue. Ken Parker Chair, Discovery Research Group Chair AQR.

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6 years ago

Nice article Andy. Tash is advocating a no-nonsense, cost effective, real life, unbiased, asynchronous approach to research. The topics for research would, of course, be very different from the topics discussed using your approach. There's a book called Consumerology by Philip Graves - he moans about focus groups for most of its 250 pages (groupies, mirrors etc…). He advocates observation as the most reliable source of information…for shopping projects. The focus group IS dying for some categories and for some research topics. Behavioural data and psychological insight alongside socio-cultural analysis; And research groups replaced by non-group methods = better insight.

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6 years ago

Really enjoyed the article, I do think that groups should never have been used for behavioural insight in the first place and then we wouldn't be in this 'tuck'. However, I think we also need to remind other researchers/ clients that it's all in the analysis - good researchers interpret what is meant by what is said - we don't literally believe everything we're told...

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6 years ago

Larry Gibson, a noted leader in marketing research for many years once said that if he were a farmer, he would use all available tools to grow his crops and that might sometimes mean more than a plow. All research techniques should be used as appropriate, some are better than others and we do not need to confuse incompetence with arbitrary exclusion. Any researcher who has used focus groups can easily cite dozens of successful case histories as well as disasters

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6 years ago

Thanks Andy, I commented on Tash's interview, I had to LOL when Brian posted that MIX changed the FG listing of services to Friendship Triads - yet another mirror bound method! Many of us in the qualitative realm recognize FG shortcomings. We are innovating and experimenting with the format, setting, etc. McKinsey's Edelman some time ago declared the marketing funnel was dead. So too is the "classic funnelled discussion guide" as you rightly note. Like Steve we incorporate psych-socio-cultural perspectives to maximize learning and insight for clients. Hybrid methods on projects (budget permitting) grant us the fuller perspective to guide our clients well. Focus groups have a place, but a different one now that we have so many new ways of discovering what drives behavior. ~marie lemerise the tapestry group

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6 years ago

Dear Andy Barker, we have translated your article into Spanish. Here is the link to the Netquest blog, that you can share with your Spanish speaker colleagues: http://bit.ly/15dR13J We congratulate you for the great article!

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6 years ago

Here Here Andy!

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