Time of Death? Not So Fast
Since about 2010, there has been a chorus among detractors that focus groups are dead. One article written by a consultant even said that within five years focus groups “…as I have known them will not exist.” 1 This author suggested that social media will be responsible for the focus group demise. She qualifies that statement by saying “Maybe they won’t go away completely, but I think they will have different purposes, be designed differently, and take on a different level of importance in the process of gathering input and information.”
In the last five years, the incredible rise of social media and online technology has often been mentioned by these detractors. In fact, while researching for this post, it became apparent that many of those writing about the “death of focus groups” were promoting new technologies for interacting with consumers. Modern-day technology options have certainly given researchers more options for learning about consumer habits and ways of thinking. For instance, there is technology to track where you go in a supermarket, what you look at and what you buy. But this technology does not answer “the whys” of the decisions being made. There is also technology to track which websites you visit, what you read and what you buy online. Yet, they still do not answer “the why” for each of those issues.
We need real human interactions in order to truly understand why consumers react in specific ways.
In short, new technology options surely add to consumer insights but do not replace focus groups altogether. We need real human interactions in order to truly understand why consumers react in specific ways.
Why Moderators Matter
In the hands of a skilled and unbiased focus group moderator, these “whys” can be sought out and unearthed. Focus group participants offer the most valuable feedback when reacting to concepts, images, models, videos, etc. Excellent moderators know exactly which of these techniques to use to in order to get the most out each group. They also understand that there is no point in asking participants whether they simply like something or not. Instead, they will ask more in-depth questions so researchers can learn what may impact decision making around the product, ad, etc.
Another issue often talked about is the cost of focus groups. Yes, there are lower priced methodologies, but they cannot truly get into the consumer’s head. Nor can they capture non-verbal cues from group respondents. Skilled moderators can achieve all of this, by guiding consumers deeper, until root reasonings are unearthed.
In order to be most successful, focus groups must be well-designed in advance, with the intention of gaining feedback and insights to impact product development or important marketing decisions.
A 2016 Wall Street Journal article2 stated: “Focus-group subjects tend to try to please their testers, impress their peers and overestimate their interest in products, making it hard to get a read on what works.” My response to this would be that the moderators in such cases were not highly skilled, and did not properly direct the conversation. In order to be most successful, focus groups must be well-designed in advance, with the intention of gaining feedback and insights to impact product development or important marketing decisions.
The Human Touch
In conclusion, I firmly believe that focus groups are still a crucial research methodology. They are most certainly not dead. In the hands of skilled moderators and research teams, focus groups represent the best way to dig into consumer thinking and motivations. Modern technology is certainly part of the picture, and in many cases can make focus groups more efficient. However, technology alone will never be able to replace the intimate human elements that focus groups deliver.
About the Author:
Educated in the UK and resident in the USA since 1979, George Sloan has over twenty-five years of practical experience in all facets of marketing research. He has specialized in qualitative research for most of his careers and having managed a focus group facility, in addition to running his own consultancy, is closely familiar with a number of advanced research techniques. George Sloan specializes in structured qualitative research, particularly focus groups and ethnography, and his strong interpretative and strategic skills bring an added dimension to executive decision making. Mr. Sloan’s extensive experience covers a broad spectrum of products and services. Subject areas in which he has conducted qualitative research range from pharmaceuticals to technology, and from apparel to alcoholic beverages.