The lazy but seductive focus group



Too often, market researchers have just two shots in their research locker: the survey and the focus group. Both have the potential to work well, but you need to understand what they’re best suited for and where they should not be used at all, or need to be supplemented with other qual methods, such as Delphi groups, consumer juries, or one-on-one interviews.  I’m struck by how often companies (and lazy market researchers) don’t instantaneously grasp that focus groups should not mimic the job of surveys. I’ve been working on a couple of client projects on focus group design and several issues crop up that are arguably emblematic of focus group difficulties in general. What follows is my understanding of what companies need to get right before they run focus groups.

1. Why are you running focus groups?

The client needs to have a clear rationale for what they want to achieve. Many companies seem to fall into the trap of running a focus group just because when they were at a similar point of activity in the past, focus groups had been used: they just do them out of habit. A good reason to use focus groups is to garner insight from customers  that your own team is unlikely to generate. That’s it. And your own team should have done lots of spadework in advance (through understanding previous research, through interrogating what the large-n surveys show) before they say ‘we need to run a focus group’.

2. How many should you run?

I haven’t seen any industry standard for this question, which is disappointing, and a cop-out. Many clients want to run a certain amount of focus groups to capture some generalisability.  In most cases, this approach is mistaken and doomed to failure. The right answer is to run enough focus groups until you hit saturation point: that is, you get no fresh insights (this is a negotiable process, of course). Market researchers are wary of this as they think they’re committing to an open-ended mission; that there’ll be a long queue of groups to run. If they do interim analysis (also very rare in market research), then the market researcher should be able to give an accurate estimate to the client of how many more groups are required. Cost and time constraints should of course be factors, but let the market researcher work for their money by requiring them to give a robust reason for the number of focus groups, rather than an unquestioned industry standard.

3. Is the sample adequate?

Lots of market researchers draw on contacts who bring friends or relatives to the focus group. This is lazy and can amount to price-gouging, as the research agency is being paid a hefty fee to source a fresh, untainted sample. If a ‘pure’ sample is not required (and there are reasons why it might not be) then this is not a problem. Again, ask the market researcher to give you a different cost structure for finding ‘connected’ samples, where some or all members of the group are known to each other. A colleague of mine was running focus groups on a  health issue; when he paid the money to a well-known agency, he was assured that the sample was ‘fresh’, that participants did not know each other. On arriving and conducting the focus groups, my colleague thought everything was going well, until he was leaving the building and saw 3 of the participants get in the same car. He asked if they knew each other and was told they did, but the agency person had said they had to say they didn’t know each other. This is simply sharp practice. That agency won’t be used again by my colleague.

4. How are the focus groups analysed?

It’s fair to say that the analysis stage with many market researchers is as follows: sit round with a couple of colleagues with the printed transcripts; highlight some ‘interesting’ bits; rejig some bits to make them match the initial research questions, and illustrate the interesting bits with juicy quotes. This could arguably be done by any bright person, with no research training. There are good ways to analyses focus groups: social scientists use them all the time. Ask your market researcher to outline their method of analysis, and if it sounds half-baked and unconvincing, then think twice before you hand over money for a task that a bright person in your company could do as well (or as badly!) with a minimal bit of handholding. Proper analysis is theoretically informed, takes time, and requires several drafts. If you hire the right person or agency, it does not have to cost any more than the fee charged by a typical research company.

5. What should you do with the focus group data ?

You can do three things with focus group data:  1: The data should feed into the design of your survey; 2:  the data should be given as feedback to your product development team, and 3: the data can also be used to refine initial brainstorms. There are other reasons, but your market researcher should be able to bang out the reasons above without a moment’s thought.

Before a company talks to a  market researcher (in-house or an agency); they should know the answer to question 1, and should expect quick and convincing answers to questions 2-4  from the market researcher. If not, then find people who can. Otherwise, you’re paying money for a suboptimal service.

Posted by Ken.


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