In follow-up to a Twitter argument in which Byron Sharp compared focus groups to astrology, Doug Garnett wrote a blog post titled Defend Focus Groups: A Critical Research Tool.

« Groups are best for wide ranging discussions searching to discover what’s important in order to end up with impactful insights. »

« Remember that direct questions don’t get accurate answers. This is a fundamental research law companies forget — because execs “want direct answers.” It’s NOT the customer’s job to give those answers — it’s the job of research discover the truth instead of verbatim accepting “what people say.” And, if you demand direct answers, you’ll be entirely misled – you won’t find truth but only what customers think you want them to say. »

« People are often more comfortable talking about delicate subjects in focus groups.  This may seem counter-intuitive but I don’t think it is. A one-on-one discussion with a stranger often causes us to close up — when talking about anything. Worse, when a stranger in an intimate situation (like our home or a one-on-one interview) asks us a direct and sensitive question, we tend to give them perfunctory answers — not the truth. »

« On the other hand, in group dynamics no one is querying the participant. Rather the group is discussing a topic and the participant will chime in with how they see it — revealing far more than they’d ever reveal in a one-on-one situation. »

« Why worry about psychology — isn’t observing behavior enough? Not at all. As marketers we need to understand how to persuade, how to help lead customers to choose our products, how to evaluate and trade-off the product options we are considering, etc… Those questions are equally important with behavior… To succeed at this, it is critical that we be disciplined listeners (that’s critical in any research). It’s our job to understand what’s said — not just stick with verbatim comments. »

« Focus groups are brilliant when used with appropriate stimulus… Our stimulus strategy is designed around the truth that consumers interact well in groups by responding to ideas. Rather than bring in a copywriter, we create stimuli to approach the ideas along with a flow in which we’re going to wander through the topics. However, to encourage free discussion and direction, we remain flexible and move as needed to whatever arises, anticipated or not. (Stimuli we use range from written material to video, sound, and even physical props.) »

« Weaknesses in the Ethnography Alternative. The most common error in ethnography is an assumption that it finds unvarnished truth. Whether the result of your individual presence in a home or customer location or the result of installation of cameras or other recording devices, your act of observing will always change what the customer does. Always. This is similar to the quantum physics problem where the process of measurement changes what’s going on among the atomic elements.

The second error seems to be an assumption that “observed behavior is truer than hearing people talk.” In my experience, this is absolutely false. I’ve spent a career around direct marketing where practitioners say “what we can measure is all that matters.” Except, that’s not true. We quite often observe behavior we don’t like (“not enough people bought”). Given this behavior, we have to make changes to improve it. Guess what, behavior won’t tell us how to — since we have no idea WHY the behavior happened or what it means. »

July 6, 2020: Twitter thread includes how to use focus groups to assess effectiveness of advertising.


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