FORUM;FOCUS GROUPS MAY PROVIDE UNFOCUSED MARKETING DIRECTION;TOO MANY MARKETERS USE THEM AS CURE-ALL

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This may come as a shock to some brand advertisers: There is more to qualitative research than focus groups.

I'll go further. Focus groups may be the worst approach you can take.

They probably won't address your business issues as well as other qualitative techniques. And, while focus groups provide you with what passes for an answer, they could lead you down the road to di-saster.

Recently we were asked by a marketing manager of a multinational company to do a complex research project. He was in a rush. He was about to introduce a new high tech product with some unusual features and needed to explore the pricing structure.

He outlined some broad, unfocused objectives and told us to use focus groups.

His initial objectives convinced us that focus groups were the wrong way to go, a conviction that grew stronger as the objectives became clearer.

But, despite our arguments, the marketing executive would not budge-it would be focus groups and nothing else.

He was familiar with focus groups. That was the way he had always gone. It was a safe choice, he thought. Conduct six focus groups and he could "talk" to 60 people. Do eight and he will hear from 80 people.

"I need numbers. I have to make some quick decisions," he said, "and I can tell management we chose this strategy after talking to 60 or 80 people. I can't go in and tell them I based this on 10 people."

This one incident illustrates all the worst errors that brand and marketing managers stumble into with focus groups.

1. Focus groups are not the answer when you are looking for big numbers. It rarely works that way. Focus groups tend to grind down and homogenize individual viewpoints. Six groups produce six group opinions-not 60 individual ones.

2. Using focus groups as a "quick and dirty" source of reliable data can be a nightmare. Focus groups are best used at an early stage on a project's time line, not as a last-minute resource upon which to hang strategic decisions.

3. Hastily organized panels can result in poorly recruited and screened groups, to whom the subject under discussion is totally irrelevant. You come away with dangerously misleading responses and end up making decisions that set you off in the wrong business direction. The potential for disaster is enormous.

4. The "quicker and dirtier" the research, the more likely you will get data based on opinions of non-involved people who would never be your customers.

5. Focus groups are not the best methodology for examining complex issues. One reason: A two-hour focus group with 10 people allows, at best, 10 minutes to 12 minutes to hear from each participant. This is too little time to gain enough insight into their backgrounds and attitudes to enable you to effectively evaluate their opinions and reasoning.

The problems we find with focus groups are not with the methodology itself. Rather, the too-frequent disasters can be traced to advertisers who misuse it. Faced with making a tough decision late on a project's development curve, they fall back upon the now familiar refrain, "Let's do some quick and dirty groups."

Too often it's the wrong time and probably the wrong place.

There are alternative methodologies that could better serve the marketing manager in these situations and provide more relevant and actionable results. These range from one-on-one interviews, creative sessions, in-store interviews and dual interviews to specially recruited super groups-made up of people with specially selected backgrounds or experience that would provide very specific insights into the subject under review.

So why use focus groups at all?

At times it's the right methodology. Traditional focus groups can be highly effective in the early stages of research. They provide a good way to learn how customers look at your brand and how they view the product category. They give a brand manager a chance to get his feet wet and hear how people actually talk about his product and advertising approach, and observe how they actually react to the brand's advertising.

Properly used, focus groups can serve as a good source of broad and general information and at times a source of ideas. In the right situation they can be used to spot trends.

But incorrectly used, as they too often are, focus groups will give you no more reliable direction than you would get from flipping a coin.

Mr. Ferguson is VP of Behavioral Analysis Inc. in Tarrytown, N.Y.

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