Conducting informative focus groups


Focus groups allow marketers to observe how and why consumers accept or reject concepts, ideas, or any specific notion. The key to using focus groups successfully is to listen. It is critical to eliminate biases as much as possible. Although many useful insights can emerge from thoughtfully run groups, there can be questions as to validity especially in today’s marketing environment.

Some researchers believe that consumers have been so bombarded with ads that they unconsciously (or perhaps cynically) parrot back what they have already heard as compared to what they think. There is also always a concern that participants are just trying to maintain their self-image and public persona or have a need to identify with the other members of the group. Participants may not be willing to admit in public or may not even recognize their behavior patterns and motivations. There is also always the “loudmouth� problem when one highly opinionated person drowns out the rest of the group. It may be expensive to recruit qualified subjects ($3,000 to $5,000 per group), but getting the right participants is crucial.

Even when multiple groups are involved, it may be difficult to generalize the results to a broader population. For example, within the United States, focus-group findings often vary from region to region. One firm specializing in focus-group research claimed that the best city to conduct focus groups was Minneapolis because it could get a fairly well-educated sample of people who were honest and forthcoming about their opinions. Many marketers interpret focus groups carefully in New York and other northeastern cities because the people in these areas tend to be highly critical and generally do not report that they like much. Too often, managers become comfortable with a particular focus-group format and apply it generally and automatically to every circumstance. Europeans typically need more time than American marketers are usually willing to give — a focus group there rarely takes less than two hours and often more than four.

Participants must feel as relaxed as possible and feel a strong obligation to “speak the truth.â€? Physical surroundings can be crucial. Researchers at one agency knew they had a problem when a fight broke out between participants at one of their sessions. As one executive noted, “we wondered why people always seemed grumpy and negative — people were resistant to any idea we showed them.â€? The problem was the room itself: cramped, stifling, forbidding: It was a cross between a hospital room and a police interrogation room. To fix the problem, the agency gave the room a makeover. Other firms are adapting the look of the room to fit the theme of the topic — like designing the room to look like a playroom when speaking to children.

Although many firms are substituting observational research for focus groups, ethnographic research can be expensive and tricky: Researchers have to be highly skilled, participants have to be on the level, and mounds of data have to be analyzed. The beauty of focus groups, as one marketing executive noted is that “it’s still the most cost-effective, quickest, dirtiest way to get information in rapid time on an idea.� In analyzing the pros and cons, Wharton’s Americus Reed might have said it best: “A focus group is like a chain saw. If you know what you are doing, it’s very useful and effective if you don’t you could lose a limb.

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