"Hey Will, I can be a moderator!"

01 Oct 2004|Added Value

Last night’s episode of Will & Grace included a plot element that is part of a trend I refer to as “focus group bashing.” While criticism of focus groups is not something new, it struck me as ironic that those who like to mock or deride this form of research are often in a position to best leverage the learning and insights that this methodology can provide.

Or to put it another way, the creative development process is actually one of the areas where qualitative research can really be valuable, despite the bad rep it gets from questionable advertising, sitcom plots, and disgruntled agency creatives.

Let’s start with the Will & Grace example. Basically two of the main characters go to a “focus group” to help a new gay television network develop ideas for programming. Hilarity ensues as Will becomes the obnoxious domineering participant who tries to drown out everyone else’s opinion, while Jack’s ability to come up with banal gay equivalents of existing reality-tv shows lands him a job as the network’s VP of programming!

Yes there were some funny moments, and yes this is a sitcom not a market research seminar, but the overall depiction of the “focus group” was a mockery, and bore very little resemblance to the actual tool of the trade. What’s worse, how many marketing and advertising people with some peripheral experience with qualitative research were watching and thinking “this is what my research dollars pay for?” The fact is, there are already too many people in the industry who think “hey what’s so hard? I could get 10 people in a room and talk to them about our product.”

The reality is, unlike the person leading Jack and Will’s discussion, an experienced moderator understands group dynamics, knows how to stimulate and manage a diverse group of respondents, and has a variety of tools and techniques to elicit in-depth responses in an often complex discussion flow. No, not anyone can just become a moderator overnight. It takes years of experience and practice (two good places to get training are RIVA Training Institute and the Burke Institute).

Of course, like any tool, research or otherwise, there are proper ways to use focus groups and unfortunately, there are clearly times when the methodology is misused.

Qualitative research (which includes not just focus groups, but in-depth interviews, ethnographic studies, ideation sessions, and more) is particularly well-suited to exploratory and creative development work.

  • When creatives have lots of new ideas, qualitative can help understand not just what “does and does not work”, but why people react a certain way, and how ideas can be modified and evolved. These ideas can be narrowed down and then tested quantitatively
  • Hearing actual consumers talk about issues, products etc., can be very helpful in developing concepts or executions that are relevant to them and that talk to them in their own language. Some of the best art directors and copywriters with whom I’ve worked were always eager to get more consumer input—not less—because it helped stimulate new and better thinking and ideas.
  • Special techniques such as projective exercises and brainstorming tools can be used to uncover harder to get at isuses often involved in positioning and branding work, as well as new product development.
  • In contrast, making a business decision with huge financial implications such as which national campaign to run or which product to bring to market just on the basis of several focus groups is foolish. These are decisions that need projectable data from either quantitative research or in-market testing.

    Of course qualitative research can often help develop the quant studies upfront (e.g. knowing what questions to ask in a survey), or put greater depth of meaning and understanding afterwards (e.g. bringing to life consumer groups identified from a segmentation study).

    And it’s important to also remember that just because research is quantitative, that doesn’t mean it’s not open to interpretation or manipulation.

    Good researchers and marketers need to apply the right methodology to the right situation, and remember that there’s both an art and a science to it.

    Getting back to Will & Grace and tv-ads that mock focus groups…..I can’t help but think that if the producers sponsored some good qualitative research and got the writing staff involved and onboard, the show would not be the pale imitation of its former self that now comes on Thursday night.

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