The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled Focus Groups Fall Out of Favor. While it's true that there are more technological tools at our disposal to connect with consumers and observe their behaviors than ever before, focus groups are still very much alive and well. The key to their effective use is knowing when a focus group over another methodology, such as an in-home immersion, mobile journal, online community discussion, or even a quantitative approach.
So when exactly are focus groups appropriate? Here are five situations where focus groups are ideal:
1) Complex Topics
I tend to recommend focus groups when the topics are a little more complex or half-baked. That's because groups offer the greatest flexibility in terms of what you can explore with consumers. A discussion guide is prepared prior to going into the groups, but it's a living document that often evolves over the course of fieldwork. New questions can be added based on what you heard in previous groups, or questions can be eliminated where we feel confident we have the learnings you need. For focus groups, there are two hour time limits, but what happens during that time is completely customizable. I've had projects where clients retooled stimuli between markets based on what we learned in group, swapped projectives in and out of groups, or added new activities to unpack a nugget of an insight revealed in an earlier group.
We can truly cover a breadth of topics and be smart with how we get to the information needed due to the flexibility of live group discussions. Therefore, they are great as a first step in a project, allowing you to have a discussion with consumers to formulate hypotheses and identify areas to dig deeper with additional research.
2) Non-traditional Stim
Likewise, groups are ideal when we're qualitatively exploring and gathering reactions to stimuli that's not straightforward. Maybe it's the start to creating positioning statements, or a radical idea consumers can't easily grasp.
In these situations, consumers need a bit more hand-holding to understand exactly what we're showing them, and if it's clear they aren't understanding the material, we can course-correct in the moment and learn how to address it better in subsequent groups!. We need these dynamic face-to-face conversations to get to the heart of the matter because it is easy to miss the confusion on their faces or find the opportunity to sufficiently address concerns in an online environment.
In-person research is also best suited when you want consumers to interact with prototypes. Sometimes what's being tested doesn't translate well digitally, or it isn't feasible to send directly to consumers for an in-home usage test. They can see, hold, use, taste these test products in a group to provide immediate feedback.
One common concern with evaluating stimuli in focus groups is the potential for group bias, but we have techniques to minimize this. For instance, we set the tone at the beginning of the focus group that the consumers' job is to help us understand their perspective, good and bad. In addition, we have them write down their individual responses to anchor their position (and to give us more to analyze after the group). We also emphasize that we are looking for a diversity of perspectives, not consensus.
We sometimes want to push the conversation beyond simply interacting and exploring consumers' reaction to stimuli. When we want to have consumers ideate and come up with their own solutions to address pain points and problems, focus groups offer unique benefits. We can lead the consumers through hands-on, multi-sensory creative activities designed to stretch their thinking and spark creativity. Not only are these sessions engaging, but the dynamics of the consumers working together can lead to great ideas.
4) Hispanic Immersion
When a project includes a focus on Hispanic consumers, groups can be a good way for non-Spanish-speaking clients to connect with this target audience. When we conduct groups involving un-acculturated Hispanics, everything is conducted in Spanish, with occasional code-switching as needed, but the clients in the backroom aren't left out of the conversation. We have a real-time translator who brings what is happening in the front room to the English-speakers in the backroom. Plus, as we debrief with the clients after the groups, we can provide an additional layer of understanding through an explanation of the cultural context based from our LatinoEyes experts.
5) Client Alignment
Sometimes it's less about what you want to learn and more about how you want to act that makes focus groups a good choice. I was discussing a potential new project with a client recently where some of the key questions were best answered by consumer-generated video - to help us capture consumers' process and pain points using a product at home, in the moment. But the client still wanted focus groups. Why? They wanted the value that comes from being present and actively participating in the group. Having the entire brand team present in the backroom means they are actively listening to the consumers and are able to discuss and align on the findings and implications together in the moment. While this is feasible with online methodologies, it requires more commitment from the client team. Depending on company culture, it can be easier for the team to commit to attending in-person research as a way to best internalize the takeaways.
Focus groups can also yield rich video to help the client team disseminate the story of the findings to the rest of the organization. Seeing and hearing the input directly from the consumers (their body language, tone of voice, etc.) aids in understanding their point of view.
So the next time you hear someone say that focus groups are no longer relevant, think twice. Focus groups are still a valuable tool for connecting with consumers and offer unique advantages over other methodologies.