Is There Still Validity in Conducting Focus Groups?

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Many companies, particularly, small and mid-size ones, conduct focus groups because they find them thought-provoking, interesting and an economical way obtaining attitudes of customers and prospects. But they often take findings from focus groups as gospel and make unwise investments as a result.

In his book entitled “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell is highly critical of focus groups and refers to the information groups provide as “thin-slicing.” And he makes a very good argument against the use of groups as a valid research technique.

Consider this line of questioning for a discount store client:

Moderator: The last time you shopped at a discount store for clothes, what was the most the most important reason you choose the store you did?

Respondent in a focus group: They have the lowest prices.

Moderator: What else was important?

Respondent: I know if I go to that store, I can get in and out quickly?

Moderator. Anything else?

Respondent: There is usually somebody around that can answer questions.

There is nothing wrong with questioning approach. The consumer is giving honest answers, as best she can recall. Price, speed and having someone available to answer questions are what she remembers as her reasons for choosing the store. Taken in the aggregate and at face value, the discount store might conclude they should add more staff to quicken check out or to assist customers with questions. Perhaps they should, perhaps not.

Consider a breakfast cereal example:

Moderator: The last time you purchased a new cereal what were your reasons for giving it a try?

Respondent: I was bored and wanted to try something new

Moderator: Any other reasons?

Respondent: I had a coupon.

Moderator: What else?

Respondent: I read the label on the box and the calories per serving seemed really low.

Again, assuming group after group expressed this behavior pattern, and taken at face value, the cereal marketer might decide to add per serving calories to their coupon copy. Such as decision might be a wise or unwise one.

It’s true. Consumers in focus groups certainly give reasons they behaved the way they did which don’t reflect their true behavior at all. They do this because they may not accurately remember what motivated them or because their behavior is totally unconscious to them. Their answers, in other words, are “thin-sliced.”

Having conducted over 4,000 focus groups, I strongly believe consumers are not trying to be untruthful. Often, they don’t care enough about the products or services being discussed to even attempt to be deceptive. Consumers simply provide answers that come to mind at that moment a question is asked…and are trying as best they can to recall why they behaved as they did,

I also believe focus groups are neither a waste of time or money. But focus groups do tend to produce “thin-sliced” motivations and, as a result, it’s wise to be cautious when making important decisons as a result of groups.

There are many emerging qualitative research techniques that can get underneath consumers “thin-sliced” or “top-of-mind” responses, and that better get at the nuances of why consumers might behave as they do. In these examples, perhaps the real reason for choosing the discount store was an ad in a Sunday supplement that announced a close-out sale on clothing. Perhaps the real reason for purchase of the new cereal was to get a discount on an IPod with proof of purchase.

The point is that what consumer may say in focus groups can indeed be the real reasons they behaved as they did, but sometimes they’re not. It’s just the best answer they can give you at that moment.

Either way, it shouldn’t matter. With any qualitative research listen to what consumers have to say with a healthy skepticism and then use survey research to prove if the attitudes and behavior as reported by a few are, in fact, indicative of the behavior that is practiced by many.

Focus groups will provide a panorama of information…a context for understanding the issues that play a role in the way consumers behave. Groups will help in determining the questions that, if asked properly in a survey, will lead to decisions that you can take to the bank.

Bob Kaden
The Kaden Co.
Bob Kaden is the author of Guerrilla Marketing Research and president of The Kaden Company, a marketing research consultancy that works with clients in planning and applying research to make more money. He is a frequent lecturer and trainer in the areas of creativity and marketing research processes.

1 COMMENT

  1. I think he nails focus groups pretty well here, but I would add that with the right stimuli and discussion they can be extremely valuable tools for exploring beyond thin slicing.
    Focus groups are not designed for go/no go decisions. That’s something different. Focus groups are for probing and exploring.

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