Focus groups are a waste of time and money

While focus groups are the 'sacred cow' of market research, do they really achieve what they set out to? Agents of Spring's Evette Cordy argues that relying on verbal conversations in an artificial environment, often observed behind a two-way mirror, is like "trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with only 25% of the pieces".

Focus groups are the sacred cow of qualitative market research. They’re fast, cheap and easy to organise. But are they good value? And do they deliver what’s required? I’ve moderated hundreds of focus groups in Australia and overseas over the past two decades, and I believe they come with several, fundamental limitations. So while companies spent approximately $70m on focus groups in Australia in 2017, it might be time to kill this sacred cow.

Artificial environments

Most traditional focus groups treat people like the latest zoo attraction – observed around a table in front of a discretely located camera, or through a two-way mirror. On the other side of the mirror are comfier chairs, and no doubt tastier snacks and drinks, where observers convey a sense of control.

But how are we expected to understand customers’ needs and motivations in this kind of environment?

As Small Data author Martin Lindstrom reflected: “If you want to study animals, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.”

Shouldn’t we treat our customers more like humans than zoo animals?

Time constraints

Focus group participants are expected to share opinions in front of strangers in a moderated, time-bound environment. At best, in a 90-minute focus group with six to eight participants, each person will get to share their views for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

This is nowhere near enough time to explore deeper needs and motivations. It only allows for a tiny and shallow snapshot into an individual’s world.

Exploratory work requires more in-depth investigation.

Conformity bias

Most focus group participants suffer from social influence or conformity bias – a tendency to act or think like others around you. Some lie because they want to appear socially desirable or acceptable, or perhaps because they are embarrassed. Have you ever observed a focus group where someone is dominating the conversation, and others start agreeing with their views, perceptions, or attitudes?

In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch first demonstrated such conformity by asking participants to guess the measurement of a line. Each participant was surrounded by a group of ‘actors’ who intentionally said the wrong answer, and 76% of the time, they provided an incorrect answer just to fit in.

All talk

Traditional focus groups lack context and rely on attitudes, opinions or self-reported behaviour mostly conveyed via one mode of feedback – a verbal conversation. This is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with only 25% of the pieces.

Focus groups rely on participants relaying exactly what they think and how they would behave, but we know people don’t always walk their talk. While some start with the right intentions, this doesn’t always translate into matching behaviours. For example, have you ever told someone you are going to drink less alcohol and more water for a month? What was the result? How did your actions differ from your intentions?

In my experience, organisations often jump too quickly into solving what they believe their customers’ problems to be, based on what customers have told them, instead of observing the real issues.

In many cases, people are unaware of their own behaviour. You can’t always rely on what you hear from behind focus group mirrors. The most profound insights I have unearthed have been through ethnographic fieldwork where observation is coupled with a conversation. Our most valuable problems to solve are often discovered by spending time with customers in their natural environment to understand their hopes, fears and values, and noticing what delights them and what their pain points are. You need to curiously observe what customers say, as well as what they do, so you can truly understand what matters to them.

You may be thinking that focus group alternatives are going to be both time-consuming and expensive. But they don’t have to be. More importantly, isn’t it more costly to take your new product or service to market based on a shallow insight – risking company resources and increasing the likelihood of failure?

It’s time to innovate and stop wasting money on a pillar of market research that has outlived its usefulness.

Evette Cordy is a registered psychologist and the chief investigator and co-founder of Agents of Spring


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