By now you’ve heard it all before. How focus groups are dead. How online tools are thankfully eliminating the need to trudge across miles to a tricked-out facility to meet with a few non-representative people who, gasp, get PAID for spouting their inane group-think. Besides, focus groups are so Yesterday. They are from a time before the internet, before computers, before cassette tapes!
Why so harsh? Well, one reason may be that focus groups are fundamentally about opinion – and the opinion that often has most influence is that of the moderator. After all the pre-meetings and redrafts of the guide, after everyone has had their say, once the group begins it is the moderator who calls the shots – where to probe, what can be ignored and what should be pursued, whom to shut down, whom to bring out, and so on and on. In a word, focus groups are subjective, meaning they are subject to the real-time, on-the-fly skills of one human being. A good focus group discussion is fluid (or should be), and the questions change with the answers in a dance between respondents and moderator, respondent and respondent, with the comment stream making sense only in context of what went before and what is to come after. And the output, the raw material that will eventually be called “key findings”, is heard differently from one ear to the next. There may be four groups, 32 people, one moderator, six clients and the video guy all introducing content that is interconnected, that can become a rat’s nest to disentangle. There is no linear path. Language is ambiguous. For people hungry for certainty, who have as their frame of reference the relatively static world of survey research, this can be dizzying and disorienting.
And if the findings, the subjective findings, are also uncomfortable to hear, then it’s natural to blame this flawed, untamed method and want to substitute something that seems to be more solid.
This is where I am supposed to say “but… “. But I won’t. Focus groups ARE messy, just as life is messy. It’s from this mess that I’ve seen rich insights spring into existence. Sorting it all out, tidying it up, can wait until the analysis. In the meantime, wallow in the mess. And be thankful if you have a smart and subjective human being on the other side of the glass rather than a robot.
Moderating focus groups is hard. It takes experience and sensitivity, the timing of an orchestra conductor, the stamina and concentration of a tennis ace. The best moderators are naturals. So much is funneled through them. This is the one area of MR that has remained a little cottage industry. Larger research agencies hire individuals, send them to RIVA or Burke for training, and eventually bring them along as part of a qualitative team. But when good in-house moderators get enough of a following, they can start their own shop, taking clients with them. In other words, for the most part, real world focus groups don’t scale. No wonder there are people eager to suggest alternatives that do.
A focus group is a performance. When it works, it is stimulating and exciting. When everyone is engaged – respondents, clients, moderator – there is palpable energy impossible with any other method.
Which gets me to the final point. Focus groups are not just about research. They provide a reason for all team members to get together in a neutral location and hang out. And these days, most clients I know have precious few occasions to hang out. In the dark intimacy of the back room, over lasagna and M&Ms, CEO and intern, marketing and R&D, creative and account, corporate and field – all these interested parties can drop their guard, share ideas and maybe come up with INSIGHTS about what they are hearing.
Any moderator knows that it is this intimacy between themselves and the clients, and between client and client, that is often overlooked. It would be a shame if clients stopped attending focus groups in real time. Something important would undoubtedly be lost, something that can occasionally border on magical.
(Image is from the front cover of “Moderating Focus Groups” By Richard A. Krueger)