Oh, the maligned focus group. Misused, devalued, the butt of jokes, then thrown out to dry. But they’re not crying for themselves so why are we crying for them?
In my twenty years of doing strategy work for brands, it’s true – I have been doing fewer focus groups, but not because they have no value. It’s just that before – we had been doing too many. What’s different now? As researchers, we have more methodologies at our fingertips. Meeting in a nondescript room with a double-sided mirror in a central location in some city is not our only option to connect with consumers. We can shop with people at their local grocery stores, check in multiple times via web chat, or sit in their homes as part of deeper ethnographic experiences.
And participants have changed. We have all become more vocal, confident consumers. Brands don’t tell us who they are, and we engage with them across multiple platforms. We give our unsolicited opinions, and we expect some sort of pay-off. We’re in. This reflex and expectation don’t stop when talking with a group of consumers in a room.
So where does this leave focus groups? They’re a tool in our respective toolboxes, and as such, they should be employed properly. When I am at my best, here’s what I do:
Re-frame the concept (to myself, clients and respondents).
When I think about convening a group, I imagine it more as hosting a dinner party: I’m bringing together a handful of diverse people who are interested in sharing their thoughts and opinions.
When I think about convening a group, I imagine it more as hosting a dinner party: I’m bringing together a handful of diverse people who are interested in sharing their thoughts and opinions. My job is to sift for ideas, not build towards alignment. So often, despite the best intentions, we veer towards the latter because it empowers us to move forward on that concept or communications idea or experience in development. It feels better, easier. More clear. But real insight is forged from contemplation, not consensus.
We, the internal team, need good conversation to help us deconstruct our ideas, then rebuild them better. A ‘dinner party’ group allows for difference, sometimes, conflict and frequently, awkwardness but also, fun, authenticity, and spontaneity. When I tell my participants at the beginning of sessions that I don’t need them to agree, I can almost feel the collective relief overtaking the room. And when they leave telling me that they had more fun than they had expected to, I’m touched.
Treat respondents like people, not subjects.
I work to make sure that my statements are not leading, but feel that the more equal we all feel, the deeper and more authentic the conversation gets.
Invite them to bring their whole selves into the room. We know that when people feel purposeful and involved, they are more committed, more forthcoming. To the extent that I can, I want us to share little bits about ourselves that don’t pertain to the subject matter. Also, I reveal the day’s mandate, what we are trying to achieve. I reveal who I am in the equation, what I might think. I work to make sure that my statements are not leading but feel that the more equal we all feel, the deeper and more authentic the conversation gets.
This means you must consider your recruit well; it’s a key factor in the group’s success. I prefer fewer people (5-6) than more. I vet recruits either through re-screening at groups or before groups. Going back to the dinner party analogy: I’m not just looking to collect a group of eaters at my table, I want some interesting thinkers. Some of my best ‘groups’ were about sensitive topics and included multiple points when/where we disagreed. But because we had collectively created a respectful dynamic, we could move through the discord.
Highlight interview, lowlight moderation.
I certainly do my fair share of facilitation and maneuvering around personalities, opinions, and bluster but when I distill what I do to its core – I interview. And while I’m indebted to the social scientists who decoded group dynamics and set the path for me to lead groups (Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development, Cass Sunstein & Reid Hastie ideas on getting beyond GroupThink and many others), I model my engagement style on professional interviewers like Terry Gross, Dick Cavett, Lillian Ross and Studs Terkel.
- Terry Gross interviews her subjects from another location so she doesn’t have to negotiate their behavior/emotions when she goes for the jugular. She just asks. Be impervious.
- Dick Cavett used his Midwestern niceness and manners to finesse a conversational style that enabled sensitive probing. Be polite in your provocation.
- Lillian Ross who wrote for the Talk of The Town section of The New Yorker, and Studs Terkel, the historian, were attuned to outliers and the details that made them. They approached people as deeply different (a positive), then shared their stories in ways that made us all feel the same. Remember the human.
Shake up the experience.
I truly believe that good conversation managed by a skilled interviewer can reveal much, but we know that our behaviors are largely emotional and we can’t always articulate why we do what we do. To unravel more emotional impulses, I use projective techniques: Photosorts, thought bubbles, word associations, etc. I also do them for the levity – to inject some air into the process. One hour of non-stop talking, listening and sitting is draining. Move people around, have them look at pictures, shift seats, write on sticky-notes, use crayons(!)
On a more macro level, I include focus groups much more in hybrid methodologies (qual or quant) – maybe do a few groups, then follow up with videochats, or follow up ethnographies. Method switching brings a new vitality to the process: The shift can be awkward but often, new thoughts or ideas fall out.
Set the tone.
Aside from being collaborative and communicative, we all have to agree that the group is the medium, not the message. We are the final makers, crafters and thinkers.
All the behaviors above work when the internal team is complicit. We all have to be in on it. And what does that mean? Aside from being collaborative and communicative, we all have to agree that the group is the medium, not the message. We are the final makers, crafters, and thinkers. So now, when I see a focus group being parodied on TV, I don’t cringe or become defensive. The focus group (and I) are older than the drinking age, we’ve changed, we’re seasoned, we can each take care of ourselves.
About the Writer:
Aliza Pollack has led strategic qualitative and brand development projects across a diverse range of brands and objectives for twenty years. She thrives on immersing herself in people’s worlds and using insights to identify and define distinct client opportunities. She’s an engaging moderator and creative thinker and loves nothing more than walking into someone’s home and digging deeply into their motivations and behaviors. They seem to like it, too.