The death of the focus group?

pete-wilsonFocus groups research get a lot of criticism but is part of the problem the way the discussions are being conducted asks Kreab Research’s Pete Wilson. 

“The cost of everything is going up. Like petrol. On the weekend we can’t afford to fill up the V8 anymore so we have to take the V6 out instead.”

So said a recent focus group participant from Western Sydney when asked what issues were concerning her.

In many cases the term ‘focus group’ itself has become a pejorative verb. Indeed ideas, policies and campaigns are said to be ‘focus grouped to death.’

It was a pithy response. It validated recent political messaging and media commentary around ‘cost of living pressures’ (even if most economic indicators at the time suggested these were under control). But the fact these battlers are running two big cars and crying poor calls into question the credibility of focus groups as a way to understand true community concerns.

Commentator Ross Gittins recently accused the ‘slaves of focus group approval’ of manipulating and exploiting public opinion for their own short-sighted benefit.

In his Sydney Morning Herald article Gittins describes how politicians and the media have deliberately dumbed down the news – he says over-reliance on focus groups is part of the decline.

In many ways he is right. As a legitimate means of qualitative, exploratory research to inform political parties and corporations on how to frame policies and communications activities, the focus group method itself has been manipulated and its reputation tainted.

While much of the blame for this may rest with those using focus groups for evil rather than good, the format of the traditional focus group is also part of the problem.

If you have ever been fortunate to take part in a focus group you will recognise the scene.

A bland room in an anonymous building, where you and eight or nine strangers sit down to eat limp sandwiches and drink warm soft drinks while a moderator asks you to open up and share your thoughts on politics/brands of shampoo/petrol prices.

The lights are unforgiving and the air-conditioning never quite right. A video camera hangs from the ceiling and clients hide behind the one-way mirror in another room hanging off your every word. It’s 8pm on a rainy Tuesday night, you’re thinking about what time you will get home and whether you’re ready for the performance review with the boss tomorrow.

But hey, if you stick it out for a couple of hours and throw in a few interesting comments (if only that guy across the table would shut up for just one second) you will get $100 for your troubles.

A bit like the laboratory rat that gets rewarded with a food pellet after completing some experimental task.

It’s not to say that this scenario can’t yield interesting insights. If moderated well the endless rantings from the guy across the table can be toned down and the rest of the weary, time-poor, post-work participants will liven up and create some meaningful discussions as if they were at the family table.

However, all too often the format lends itself to easy, superficial responses where responses like the one from our compromised V6/V8 driver become the ‘key take- out’ from the group.

At its worst, the focus group looks briefly at complex topics (many of which people have no real interest in) to arrive at a simplistic position of support or opposition, resulting in a simplistic slogan which then undergoes further focus group ‘testing’.

World-weary focus group moderators can be the problem. Rather than being the dispassionate observer and trusty steward of conversation, the moderator can become too involved in the discussion itself, shaping opinion rather than listening to it.

So is all hope lost for the focus group? As with many forms of social and market research, the online platform is offering salvation.

Five years ago the thought of conducting a focus group online was seen as ridiculous by many (myself included).

‘You would miss the nuances of face-to-face interaction’, we critics said. ‘How could you have a natural conversation on the internet?’.

These were perhaps valid criticisms at the time, when society was less online-savvy than today. But for anyone with even a vague engagement with social media would know, our willingness to express ourselves online has grown exponentially and has become (hard though it may be to believe on some sites) increasingly articulate.

When applied to the stale-old focus group format, this passion for over-sharing online has been a godsend.

Having a discussion with a group of people online delivers a level playing field: you only have a user name and no one knows who you are or what you look like.

Participants take part when they want to, not when they’re told to, and therefore have the time to provide a considered response to the questions, rather than an on-the-spot reaction before a bunch of strangers.

In a recent series of online focus groups we conducted we received more than 600 individual posts from 40 participants. Some were brief one-liners and others mini essays.

The vast majority were deeply insightful and useful to our client.

The online focus group format also enables those who are not confident in speaking in front of others to be better heard. Those not comfortable expressing themselves through the written word can make use of other channels like uploading photos or videos.

Of course this is not to say that an online focus group can’t be manipulated in the same way as a traditional one. But by giving participants more freedom and control in expressing themselves, the end user (whether a political party or corporation) is forced to listen a little more closely and think a bit harder before jumping to simplistic conclusions.

When our V6/V8 driver made that comment about petrol prices there were mild titters of ridicule from the group. If we were online she would have had the time and confidence to tell us more about her cars and how petrol prices might seriously affect her travel and leisure plans.

But stuck in that airless room there were other topics we had to get to within our allotted two hours before the sandwiches ran out. We couldn’t explore her response any further. We never found out why it was important to take the V8 out on the weekend. Perhaps her follow up responses would have dispelled the quick judgement of ‘first world problems’.

We never got to ask her. But the client was happy. Her quote looked great in the final report. And she got $100 to fill up the V8’s tank. I hope she had a good weekend.

Pete Wilson is managing director of Kreab Research. He has over 20 years experience in the social and market research sector and has probably moderated too many focus groups.


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