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The father of the focus group despised how his methodology had been hijacked and bastardized.

Robert Merton said “Focus groups are supposed to be merely the source of ideas that need to be researched.” They were meant to be no more than a jumping off point and a general direction. Instead, focus groups became a favorite way to get quick answers by taking a fatal shortcut.

  • Advertising genius David Ogilvy liked to say that “People don’t think what they feel, don’t say what they think, and don’t do what they say.”
  • Daniel Gross, author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups, says “the widely documented mismatch between what people say and what they do costs companies millions.”
  • Kay Polit, principal analyst at management consultant company A.T. Kearney says focus groups are “a faulty process.” Mary Quinlan says they are “a dangerous way to get market intelligence.” Dev Patnaik calls focus groups “a customer terrarium,” with people taken out of their natural surroundings and put behind glass.
  • Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy, call focus groups “the great lie.” They say focus groups should be dumped and real customers observed in real settings instead.
  • Terry Linhart of Arbor Research Group often politely asks clients if they really want to know the facts or if they just want the research to confirm the genius of what they’re already doing, saying it semi-jokingly, making the point nicely.

Want to screw up your focus groups? Here’s how knuckleheads do it.

  • Overbuild your discussion guide. Instead of identifying some broad areas to explore thoroughly, go ahead and produce a rat’s nest of unconnected issues so long that a study subject can’t possibly give them any careful consideration.
  • Use complicit moderators skilled at magically transforming discussion sessions into sales sessions.
  • Produce faux quant. Ask participants to vote on things. Tally responses so you can later claim things as nonsensical as “75% of our customers love our idea.”
  • Avoid giving participants the opportunity to think carefully. Pressure them to provide answers that fit your questions. Keep on pounding at what you want to hear.
  • Send in notes. This not only interrupts the flow of the discussion, but also reminds participants they are being watched.
  • And by all means, use them to validate your already-made decisions instead of asking questions and generating ideas.

Properly conducted, focus groups are good for five things:

  • As exploratory research used to guide survey research.
  • Uncovering the real questions and issues.
  • Identifying commonality and variance.
  • Understanding the language consumers use.
  • Writing better questionnaires.

How dead are focus groups?

It depends. While they continue to be popular among those who can’t tell the difference between good research and bad, smarter businesses have moved on to far better ways of conducting their qualitative research, replacing focus groups with methods that produce more and better insights:

  • On-site observations. 
  • One-on-one interviews.
  • Dyad and triad interviews.
  • Ethnographies.
  • Hybrid methodologies.

Your entire organization will benefit when decision-makers learn how to avoid misinformation traps and shift to more useful and more trustworthy customer, competitor, and market research.



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