Alan's Musings
What's Up with Focus Groups?

I’ve been conducting focus groups for… well it’s been a long time. Long before I started moderating groups I spoke to one of the giants of focus groups who was present at the birth of the marketing adaptation of the psychotherapeutic group session.

He talked about holding these early focus groups around the coffee or kitchen table at a host’s home. No one-way mirror. No high tech video/audio system. No special menus from the local and trendy eateries for the clients. Everyone shared the coffee and cookies.

Recruiting? Well this was relatively easy. The hostess (more often than not it was the “lady of the house”) got her friends together… a neat way of spending a morning while the kids were at school. The hostess made sure that her friends were all users of a particular brand of coffee or whatever.

The moderator/facilitator would, in a laid-back manner, get to the information objectives between sips of coffee and munching of cookies. Then in a week or so the moderator presented the topline on the session(s) and issue a final report several weeks later.

To put together his reports he sometimes had a tape recorder going but most assuredly relied on his notes or those of his assistant who was taking notes. We need to remember that in those days tape recorders were a lot larger than the miniature versions we know today.

I don’t need to tell you were groups are these days.

A question. Has our change to the high-tech, conference center, gourmet catering, very expensive focus group paradigm improved the value of our information and the decisions that we make as a result?

I am suggesting the answer to the above is no!

I believe the reasons are the following…

• We have focused (sorry about that) on making the focus group environment comfortable for the client and not for the respondent. How many of our respondents are accustomed to board of director type meeting facilities? Unless of course the target audience are boards of directors or “professional” focus group attendees!
• While I am mentioning it “professional” respondents who don’t qualify for the session.

Let me pick up on the “professional” respondents issue. Let me differentiate between the “professional” who qualifies and those who don’t. I am mostly concerned about those who figure out how to make $75+ dollars for 2 hours of sitting and drinking coffee and eating deli sandwiches. I’ve done everything I know of to prevent this from happening. I’ve written tight screening questionnaires. I’ve read the riot act to the facilities I have used. I’ve re-screened respondents in the waiting room. This sometimes works.

I remember a project I did for a client in which the respondents were to have been the decision makers for a piece of electronic equipment. Well, I felt confident that everyone qualified on this point. I even re-screened them to verify it. Then right in front of the 2-way mirror and the video recording equipment the respondent says, “No, my wife decided what to buy.” This guy turned out to be a waste of time and money. At more than $175/respondent I was incensed… well more than that!

This is just one example… I am sure you have your experiences as well.

So, what to do about it?

Let me share my thoughts about corrective action and see how it flies.

I am dedicated to returning to the original model of doing groups in a host’s home. I have a number of thoughts about how to make this happen. Then have the host identify potential participants from their circle of friends and family who qualify for the session. Then I as the moderator contact all the potential respondents to make sure they qualify and to do some initial data gathering as well.

Then run the group session with the research team in attendance. Even participating in the session when appropriate – controlled by the moderator. Have a tape recorder running in plain view of the participants. Maybe even take photos, if they all sign-off.

I like doing a several quantitative techniques in groups… this can still be done.

I am ready to do this.

I strongly believe it will save huge amounts of money – just on the catering alone! And I believe we will get much better data and then make much better decisions.

Here is to going back to the future!