Focus Groups: Helpful? Useless? Dangerous?

I was invited to my first focus group in May, having up until then always been the one on the other side of the mirror wondering what it would be like to be the respondent. To be the one whose every word the client was hanging on. To be the one who got paid a lot of cash to simply speak, no matter if the words were thoughtful and helpful, bitter and disruptive, or as sometimes goes, nearly non-existent (by far the most frustrating scenario of all.) I was thrilled to be offered $350 for 90 minutes of my time, and well aware of the amount of energy and money the client was putting into the project, I gave it and them my all.

The client turned out to be a big insurance/financial services company wanting to determine a better approach to attracting great female talent into their organization. “Employed” was a pre-requisite for “great.” The recruiter got me right in the nick of time, just before I left my job, so I could say, “Yes! I am currently employed!” For three more days… The reality is even if I hadn’t been employed I’d have been a great candidate for this group, but as a client I always trust our screeners to be thorough and strict – a focus group is only as good as its weakest participant and when you have a few doozies, you learn nothing. Or worse, you get false insights.

Though it’s not always the respondents who are the issue in a bad focus group. Sometimes it’s the subject matter. I once remember hosting groups to evaluate various phone plans; no wonder the takeaways were uninspired. That may have been the group during which two respondents nodded off to sleep. Typically, this is only an issue for those sitting in the back room when M&Ms just aren’t enough to hold attention. Fortunately, the subject matter of my group was pretty interesting. And my fellow respondents, our moderator and her discussion guide were all great too. I trust the client was happy, and awake.

Following this focus group, and then my three remaining days of life in the corporate world for the time being, I found myself at the beach a lot. Time off is a precious commodity, and time off over the summer is a true gift, and untrue to form, I promised myself (and actually made good on my promise!) not to waste it all away at the computer. This one particular beach day was fairly crowded and I’d already moved once, away from darling but loud and not-my kids, when I realized I’d sat next to an even louder, yet older beach neighbor yapping away on her phone about none other than focus groups. Instead of moving this time, I listened.

The situation was clear: she had been contacted by a recruiter to be in a group, and that recruiter had asked her to find other people to be in it with her. Could be viewed as a pretty smart move by the recruiter. Perhaps smart but lazy. Or just downright irresponsible. It’s always a crapshoot to pawn off responsibilities on someone else, especially someone you don’t know. In this case, it was not the right move.

My beach yapper was calling all of her friends trying to get them to go to this focus group so they could all “make some money and go drinking afterwards.” She didn’t know the subject matter, except that it had to do with Boeing (“You have to lie and say you know what that is. Something to do with planes. I lied.”), Vegas (“You have to tell them you’ve never been there, or at least that you haven’t been there for 15 years.”) and Nike. After picking my jaw up from the sand realizing there existed more than one American adult (this one was probably 60+) who hadn’t heard anything about the recent Boeing catastrophes, and then letting my mind wander to solve a mystery I’d pondered off and on for years… how do they possibly find jurors for high profile cases who truly haven’t heard or read anything about the case at the time of selection? (answer: Riis Beach), I focused back in on the eavesdropping. I pieced together that her upcoming focus group probably had something to do with brand reputations. I still can’t figure out who’d have been sponsoring this research, but whomever it was wasted thousands of dollars on this lady and her crew – not to mention the potential damage they may have created by relying on this research to take any sort of action.

And it made me wonder how many times I’d been that client. I’ve been a part of great groups, and pretty bad ones, but never did I think that a recruiter would allow themselves to be duped to such a degree that the research could be false enough to be dangerous. In advertising, there are the age-old stories that make everyone question following research out the window: ATMs bombed in research, Apple’s 1984 TV spot, one of the most famous of all time, was essentially killed in focus groups, etc. In both cases, research was ignored. But those examples are few and far between, and given the tenuousness of the CMO position these days, it is indeed safer to have research to back up decisions you make so you have those findings to fall back on should something not work. Safer, yes – whether it leads to better decisions and stronger work remains a big question mark.

Focus groups is just one type of research, of course, but it’s always been my type of choice for evaluating ideas or gathering insights to inform conceptual thinking, because it allows you to dig in deeper on a response vs having a thousand people answer A, B, C, D to a bunch of questions. I’ve always been eyes wide open enough not to allow anyone to fall on a sword over any respondent’s POV. But there’s a difference between a meh respondent and one who is just lying to make a buck. I hope this lady and her friends are the anomaly.



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