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Cuddle Up to Focus Groups Again

Neuroscience proves that most decisions are filtered through emotions, and the holy grail in qualitative research is understanding these emotions. Decades of behavioral research is fairly conclusive: in order for a giver of feedback to convey emotions there must be a high level of trust with the receiver of feedback.

To date, our industry has focused on technological solutions to measure emotional response.  That is, hook people to machines for brain scans and to measure other biomarkers. These work, but they are expensive and inaccessible to many clients.

We think a more human approach is the answer.

If the foundation is trust, traditional qualitative research can be modified to ensure study participants have trust with the facilitator and others in the group.  More trust equals a deeper exchange than what is achieved with typical approaches.

So, you may be asking, what’s different?

The first and most obvious modification is the elimination of the one-way mirror.

We work closely with a behavioral scientist in tweaking our methodologies. She had never been to a focus group in the market research industry and was horrified by the mirror. Oops.

The role of the moderator is different

From our knowledge of behavioral sciences, building trust requires that the receiver of feedback be perceived as an equal and not an authority figure. This requires a thoughtful process in how the study itself and “moderator” are positioned to study participants. As an equal in the group, the “moderator” should also be prepared to fully participate.

The expression of emotions may require non-verbal tools.

Some people are not comfortable expressing emotions verbally. For example, we’ve had success in using emoticon cards. For some, it’s much easier to hold up a picture of what is going on inside versus stating it. For others, a simple anonymous writing exercise could help. In this technique, thoughts are written down and placed in a hat. The session leader reads the notes out loud and then fosters group discussion.

Advance relationship building is critical.

A function of trust-building is one-on-one time with the leader and participants in advance of a face-to-face meeting. With today’s technologies, this is very easy to do. Try a low-key mix-n-mingle before a session; too many study participants are stressed out from traffic when they arrive. We find it a little weird that in traditional focus groups, participants and the moderator don’t usually meet one another until they walk into the conference room.

There are still limits to what people will express in a group

Even if all of these changes are implemented, some will still be reluctant to fully open up. The group leader must still rely on body language and facial expressions for insight.  We’ve experimented with “Truth Booths” where participants record their reactions and thoughts privately for the moderator to review later. Think of it as a recorded confession without the priest.

There is indeed a middle ground between brain scans and the traditional focus group. With effort toward building trust, it is much easier to “peel back the onion” and understand emotional filters. One word of caution, though.  Be prepared for the group hug at the end of each session.

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