Five ways to fix focus groups

Editor’s note: Tim Coffey is president of VictusVeritas Insights, a Cincinnati research firm. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the firm’s e-newsletter under the same title.

Nobody seems to like focus groups. And yet, this research method is still one of the most popular approaches for many companies. So, why is it that there is a familiar groan of “We just don’t get any real insights from focus groups”?

Is the problem with the moderators? Dull respondents? Poor facilities? Bad food? Too many M&Ms? Let’s get real. There are strengths and weaknesses inherent to the methodology and appropriate and ina158800305ppropriate execution that, together, often lead to less-than-completely-satisfying results.

So what are five ways to fix focus groups, to get better, more insightful results?

1. Focus your focus group. If this seems too simplistic to you, then you are probably a marketer and not a market researcher. I am qualified to poke at you because I’ve been both, so I understand the various pressures and behaviors that both roles must navigate. Having said that, focus is the single most important thing you can do to improve the results you get with focus groups.

What I mean when I say focus is, limit the number of learning objectives to three or four areas. Don’t think of learning objectives as questions but rather, “What do I need to learn from consumers in order to achieve my business goals?” Be strategic. Too often, market research managers and moderators are confronted with a laundry list of specific questions that can mask the real priorities and constrain them from digging deeper or using alternative approaches to get to real learning.

If you do limit your learning objectives, the promise is that the moderator will be able to design a discussion guide that utilizes multiple approaches or activities to get at each objective, which leads to deeper learning and insight against your priorities. I understand that there are lots of questions to be answered and not enough time or money to address them all. So get what you need, versus getting nothing. Everybody is happy.

2. Talk to insightful consumers. Of course, we must recruit consumers who fit the parameters that make sense for the objectives of the groups. But, does it make sense to work with consumers who are dull as dishwater and as introspective as a rock? Truth is, there are people who are much more observant and articulate and representative of where attitudes and behaviors are going versus where they’ve been. One truly insightful consumer can unlock understanding and learning more than a roomful of “representative” consumers. There are ways to recruit for this type of consumer that go beyond the typical “articulation and creativity” questions that are sometimes used in the industry. You can get people who are both consumers and are insightful, interesting and inspiring . . . people you will remember.

3. Quantitative and qualitative. Market research vendors often define themselves as either/or, with focus groups falling squarely into the qualitative. From a technical standpoint, what we are really talking about is the projectability of data or findings from our sample to a broader population. Let’s not go back to statistics class here but suffice to say that focus groups do not produce projectable data, thus they are qualitative. What they should do is to inspire deeper understanding and/or hypotheses and/or models about the potential way people think or behave or react.

The challenge is that sometimes we mix and match quantitative questions into a qualitative process. For instance, if you are asking how many, how much, how often, rank-order, what percent, etc., then you have ventured into questions begging for a quantitative response. This is dangerous territory.

So what do you do? We often combine mini-quantitative surveys with our focus groups so that we get the best of both worlds. This can be a very cost-effective way to maximize the learning you get from your focus groups. Smaller online survey sample sizes can produce representative data – albeit with lower confidence levels –  that help to quantify key questions and keep the focus groups free to do what they do best.

4. Don’t ask direct questions. If you think I am simply being provocative here, then we haven’t worked together yet. The minute you begin to ask consumers direct questions in a focus group is the minute they begin to mislead you. First of all, if you really need the answer to a direct question, see #3 above. Secondly, respondents in focus groups are not likely to share anything with you that could potentially make them look bad or that might be embarrassing. So, they either tell you what they think you want to hear or just make something up (i.e., lie). In either case, you are not getting the truth.

A better approach is to frame questions in a way that allows consumers to project their true feelings without the “cost” of social embarrassment. We do this in many different ways, including: metaphorical construction, visual association, persona creation and more. This takes a little more work before and after but the results are definitely worthwhile, as you can consistently deliver deeper, more insightful, more innovative findings than with ordinary approaches.

5. Demand insights not toplines. It should not be sufficient to accept a topline summary from your research consultant, just because several people were in the backroom taking notes and writing instant summaries for their boss. Focus groups are not a spectator sport.

A great report/presentation takes a little more time, to allow for the processing of all of the discussions and materials. And, most importantly, it takes some high-level thinking to distill and create true insights that address your challenges, to see the unseen. It should be a report/presentation that is inspiring, provocative and worth keeping and sharing. It should make a difference.

We view our reports/presentations as our “product.” We don’t write or produce them on airplanes. Each one is a creative culmination of our obsession to discover meaningful insights that make a difference.

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Follow these five ways to fix focus groups and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Some of them are easier than others but I assure you that your effort to affect change will be worth it!

This entry was posted in Focus Groups, Market Research Best Practices, Qualitative Research, Research Recruiting. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Five ways to fix focus groups

  1. Susan Eliot says:

    As a qualitative research consultant myself, I applaud the focus group rigor you’ve inspired with this post. Recruiting information-rich consumers is key to generating useful data. And I like your suggestion about having consumers complete mini-quantitative surveys to answer closed-ended questions. I have them do so before we start the discussion and label each response sheet with their unique identifier so I can cross-tabulate qualitative with quantitative responses. After going through all the time, trouble, and expense to conduct the focus group, we owe it to ourselves, to decision-makers, and to the participants to spend the time it takes to distill insights and major themes from the findings. To do so, I have developed a methodology using an Excel spreadsheet. You can find a step-by-step guide to analyzing qualitative data with Excel on my website under “Resources.”

  2. Amy says:

    Focus is crucial. Many times it seems that people want to try and shove as many topics as possible into an already very limited time frame of 1.5 to 2 hours. I always say it’s better to get deeper with fewer themes than try and address a laundry list of questions without getting into depth.

    Something else I would add to your list is limiting the number of respondents to 6. You have a more easily managed conversation and you’re likely to learn more. I’ve worked with folks in the past who were so convinced they were getting more bang for their buck by shoving 8 people into a room for a couple hours. I had to explain to them that when you do that, each person has less time to speak, so you’re really getting less value for your dollar. It’s as though they were approaching it quantitatively, and were mistakenly correlating more people with more information.

  3. Rick Hobbs says:

    Good points especially point #2. So often we take the first breathing candidate in the demographic to reduce cost of recruit, most times we check for language profiency to ensure they can speak the language of the group, and recruiters are told to check on communication skills…. but why not over recruit and do an advanced check of insightfulness. Then take the best…. not sure what that looks like pragmatically.

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