Focus Groups - Where Reliable Statistics Go to Die
Focus groups. They’ve had a tough old time. Written off by many in adland as old-fashioned, unreliable and overly simplistic, the very mention of them seems to fire up feelings of hatred usually only reserved for QR codes or the Daily Mail. But they can’t be completely useless can they? We have a look at both sides of the argument.
What are they?
At its simplest a focus group is a way of gathering qualitative research by bringing together a group of people to ask them about their perceptions, opinions or attitudes towards something. It could be a product, it could be an idea, it could be a piece of packaging. It could be anything. Participants are recruited on the basis of similar demographics, psychographics, buying attitudes or behaviours.
How did they start?
The origins of the focus group can be traced back to the 1920s, and two social scientists Emory Bogardus and Walter Thurstone, who used them to build better survey models. But it was not until two colleagues from the Sociology Department at Columbia University Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, started using ‘group interviews’ (initially to assist the US government in the development of propaganda materials in the Second World War) that the format really made its mark as a qualitative research tool. Since then it has become a huge part of the research and insight industry which generated £2.71billion in turnover in 2014 in the UK alone.
What can they help with?
The answer is lots of things! For the sake of simplicity we can think about this in two ways:
Understanding behaviours and beliefs: groups give you the opportunity to uncover attitudinal beliefs: having direct conversations can give a deeper sense of what somebody believes than say a survey with a set of predetermined options. Being able to probe opinions and answers further is clearly another useful factor.
The discussion aspect is another useful vehicle for insight gathering. Hearing others verbalise experiences can stimulate memories, experiences or even ideas. This is often referred to as “the group effect” where the participants engage in a kind of ‘chaining’ or ‘cascading’ effect.
Testing products, hypotheses or ideas: a common exercise is to use the setting to gauge live response to something. In our world this could be territories for a strategy, it could be a few versions of an ad or it could even be a new name for a product. Similarly it can be a useful forum to identify gaps and opportunities in a product or offering. Groups can be a great sounding board for ideas.
What about the limitations?
While there is clearly much to be gleaned from this form of research, it would be foolish not to acknowledge the limitations and criticisms. The first and perhaps most obvious shortcoming is that focus groups offer just the views of those in the room. They can never and should never be taken as a gospel representative of the wider population or customer set. The other well publicised factor is the consumer behaviour gap: we don’t always behave in the ways in which we would claim to when asked about it. There is also something to be said for how truthful people are/aren’t in groups (especially when there’s a camera running), how sometimes respondents can be overly influenced by the views of other people in the group (the dominance hierarchy) and even the influence of the facilitator themselves on the results (in how questions are framed or lines of enquiry followed)
So should we be using them?
What we do know is that in the age of ad blockers, on demand TV and all of the other supposed hammer blows to our profession, it is more important than ever for brands to really listen to their customers and get genuine insight into their views, habits and lifestyles. With all the customer data we have access to, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we know what our customers think.
Focus groups can’t give us all the answers, and nor should they be expected to, but they can certainly give us a useful start. Who knows, a throwaway comment might inspire a brilliant idea, but like with all forms of data, the real value comes in the interpretation. Merton puts it best himself “focus groups are supposed to be merely the source of ideas that need to be researched further”. They don’t give you all the answers, but they might just be a good place to start.
Andrew Lopez is a planner at Ogilvy PR