the focus group must die

imagine the scene. it’s 6.30 in glasgow (but it could just as easily be manchester, birmingham, newcastle or london). you are in an expensive and fully kitted-out viewing facility…with 2 way mirrors and dvd recording. you’ve spent the past few weeks pulling together your methodology for this project, writing and re-writing the discussion guide, the recruitment brief, creating truly inspirational visual stimulus. there are 3 of your most prized clients behind the glass enjoying the catering and waiting for the show to begin. they’re paying for all this.

8 carefully recruited respondents walk into the room. you’ve seen at least 4 of them before. they are professional ‘groupies’. you no longer care what they are about to say. in fact you hate them for being here and you hate your recruiter…but you have to go on with the show for the next 90 minutes.

if you conduct qualitative research regularly…you will be familiar with this scene. it happens all over the country every week-night, every week. its an industry…and, as a valid source of real consumer opinion and insight…it’s fundamentally flawed.

here’s why:

1. people who agree to attend group discussions are wierd

think about it. if someone stopped you on the street or called you up tomorrow and asked you to give up 3 hours of your evening to talk about cheese (or banking, or political advertising, or whatever) and all you got in return was £30 and the chance to sit in a windowless basement with a group of strangers being recorded and watched through a two-way mirror…would you do it? would your friends? of course not. it’s not normal behaviour.

2. these wierdos keep coming back…

the weirdos who agree to go to group dicussions find that they actually enjoy it. it gives them something to do. and they get paid! so they keep coming back. many recruiters see this as a blessing. they can set up a database of such wierdos and call them up when they need to find some people for a client. as long as they shuffle them around a bit, nobody will mind too much, right?

3. it’s a false environment

even with careful and highly skilled interviewing…how can you realistically expect people to be open, honest and relaxed in such an abnormal context? answer: you can’t.

4. it’s massively expensive

with the cost of recruitment, venue hire, recording, catering and paying the wierdos…group discussions become a very expensive way of trying to understand what people think. cost vs value…doesn’t make sense.

now…i’ve moderated a lot of groups over the years…many of which have been extremely informative and generated useful insight. but there are better ways of speaking to people. real people in real places.

speak to people on a one-to-one basis. buy them a coffee. let them chose the venue. even better, go to where you’ll find the people you want to speak to and…guess what? engage them in conversation. create dialogue in a natural setting. buy them a drink. don’t wierd them out in a basement viewing facility. what you’ll discover will be far more valuable and insightful and (most importantly) real.

i recently worked on a project for an investment client in london. we needed to speak to extremely wealthy and investment literate people…instead of hiring an expensive viewing studio in clerkenwell and paying each participant huge sums of money just to turn up…we met them on their home turf. sometimes in their offices, sometimes in their homes. over a coffee. in a bar. they chose the location. sometimes we met them on their own, sometimes with a friend/partner/colleague. some conversations lasted 20 minutes, some an hour and a half.

the information we gained from these discussions was infinitely more valuable and believable than what we had gained from holding group discussions with a similar audience, for the same client, only a few months earlier. the client is delighted and our way forward is clear.

i’m interested in the principles of mass-observation (www.massobs.org.uk) and the ethos of creating an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ by observing more and inerfering less. perhaps an adaptation of this is individual-observation – watching and learning from real people doing real things.

qualitative researchers in brands and marketing can learn a lot from this movement.

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