Why You Shouldn't Forsake the Focus Group

In-Person Conversations Can Be Disruptive and Produce Breakthrough Understanding

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
The other day, I spent several captivating hours with about 40 high-school students talking about the role of digital and social technology in their lives.

The experience bordered on transformative. Yes, this from the guy who thinks he knows everything because he's "wired to the conversation."

This exercise in "feet on the street" crowdsourcing was part of my due diligence as new board member of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, a youth-mentoring organization.

The conversation from the diverse group of students flew in directions that I didn't expect or plan. Insights flowed like the great Niagara. It was deep, meaningful, and at times outright hilarious. Yes, teens text like crazy (the group I talked to average 50 a day), but the core motivations are more complex.

All of which left me with one screaming thought: I miss focus groups. In an age of almost unstoppable "conversation," this was a real conversation. Deep, authentic, unscripted, meaningful, unpredictable and even -- dare I say -- a bit disruptive. It felt good. It felt right.

Focus groups have become the whipping boy of the digital age. We trash-talk them all the time. They are highly inefficient, overly structured, excessively scripted and easily manipulated. And they're no competition for the seemingly unlimited focus group online.

I owe much to focus groups for igniting my passion for consumer understanding and marketing. Within a week of arriving at P&G for my summer internship in 1994, I was shipped off to Miami and then Los Angeles for a series of intense focus groups to glean key nuance between Hispanics "East of Rockies" (more Puerto Rican and Cuban influenced) and "West of Rockies" (Mexican dominant).

We learned tons. I was humbled. The faces, the body movement, the group interplay, the conversational flows all amounted to a treasure trove of insights. In the non-Hispanic groups that followed over the years, it always boggled my mind how much we could actually learn from engaged moms on something as ostensibly mundane as a paper towel.

I'm not jumping off the digital ship, but I do worry that we sometimes grossly misappropriate social media as a proxy for live interaction or offline conversation. It's not.

Looking ahead, we might be well served by reclaiming or rediscovering some of those "offline" encounters -- not as a replacement for our digital conversations but as a vitamin. As we're learning with TV, and certainly with customer service, social media might just make the core foundations even stronger -- but only if used correctly.

Breakthrough consumer understanding is a delicate (and empathetic) balancing act of what we glean and filter online and what we dig up in real conversations. It's far from an all-or-nothing proposition, and the advent of video digital "sight, sound and motion" blurs the line.

Indeed, the "Research Transformation" initiative led by Joel Rubinson and the Advertising Research Foundation hit the mark by challenging everyone to think carefully about the right balance between "listening and asking."

Both sides contribute.

Unprompted listening to social media, for instance, might sharpen the questions in the "asking" phase. Think about all the surveys or focus groups we've placed without properly identifying the right questions.

Conversely, focus groups can only take you so far without sufficient volume. High velocity of conversation can help us pinpoint "profitable demand pools" that may not be obvious in live conversation, a point implied in a new book, "How Companies Win," by Nielsen CEO Dave Calhoun and Cambridge Group CEO Rick Kash. (Full disclosure: I'm a Nielsen employee.)

But back to the texting teens. They are certainly living the bold new digital conversation, but don't always assume you need to connect with them online to figure out what's going on.

Sometimes we just have to "have a real conversation."

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of NM Incite, a joint venture of Nielsen & McKinsey, and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000."
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