Are focus groups dead?

11 Jul 2005|Lee Shupp

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, is riding high on the business best seller lists. I found the book a fast and fun plane read, and agree with the basic precept that we make many decisions quickly, at the gut level, rather than rationalizing everything before we act.

Malcolm has been on the road promoting his book, and one of the subjects that keeps coming up is whether focus groups are worth doing. Malcolm argues that focus groups are dead; that they focus (pun intended) on rational, stated behavior, which is rarely in play as people make purchasing decisions.

I beg to differ. I agree that focus groups are overused- but they are a valuable tool in the market researcher’s toolbox.

I find that focus groups are often the default setting for qualitative research, especially with inexperienced clients, or those with too much on their plate to have time to thoughtfully consider alternative approaches. Why are focus groups overused? Because everyone knows what they are. Because they are fast and easy, requiring just a few hours over a few nights. Because they are cheap. Because the back room is comfortable and fun. Because people can multitask, checking email and working on that presentation that is due Friday.

These are all reasons that people use focus groups, but they are not really the right reasons. Focus groups are valuable when you want to understand perceptions rather than behavior. Focus groups are a good tool for ideation and brainstorming. Focus groups are a good research tool when you want to observe the interaction within a group of people, and discover where there is consensus and where opinions differ. Focus groups are a great venue for projective techniques that get at underlying emotion.

Now to counter Malcolm’s argument against focus groups. First, focus groups don’t just focus on rational, stated behavior. We use a variety of projective techniques to understand underlying emotion, techniques that require right brain thinking and creativity rather than left brain thinking and logic. In fact, projective techniques often lead to our most interesting insights. Second, rational thought and behavior is important to understand, because we don’t always kowtow to our emotions. We often override our emotions when making purchase decisions. And when we don’t, we want a rational justification for our emotional behavior after the fact.

No methodology is perfect. Like any methodology, focus groups have strengths and weaknesses. Understanding the opportunities and limitations of all of the tools in the researcher’s toolbox is the key to picking the right tool for the job.

prev next