Focus groups: you either love them or hate them. Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading more hate than love. Frequent comments: (1) One person dominates the discussion, (2) I don’t think people are truthful, (3) Participants are influenced by others, and (4) Focus groups don’t predict behavior.
With all due respect, the reasons for the “hate” are ill-informed.
First, the abovementioned issues are nothing new and they are indeed limitations to the methodology. Mitigation of #1 – #3 is directly linked to moderator skill.
For item #4, it tells us that expectations for focus groups are not being set. These sessions only identify four things and nothing more: perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitude (or POBAs for short.) POBAs are factors in but not predictors of behavior.
Something must be working, however. Each year, over $2 billion worldwide is spent on focus group research and it is still one of the most widely used and durable techniques we have.
When do they work best? When you purposefully want a group dynamic.
Groups are better at diverging. If the goal is to understand all the possibilities, a group will be far more efficient. If you want good ideas, assemble a group of people.
In some cases, focus groups can simulate the impact of influencers. That is, as ideas are discussed opinions may change. The resiliency of opinions is very telling about how committed someone is to a concept. Commitment and intensity of response are often better predictors than what someone says on the surface.
With some simple modifications to the focus group, these sessions can also be very good at understanding motivations and underlying emotions. This takes a high level of trust between the moderator and participants, AND participant-to-participant. Check out our resources on WE—our revamp of the traditional focus group designed specifically to discover emotional drivers.
So, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. If your focus groups are still being run like it was 1946 (the year focus groups were supposedly invented), you have many opportunities to modernize them so that you get even closer to your customer.
Long live the focus group!