Focus Groups in the Digital Age

A conversation with Anne Brown, moderator with JSC Consumer Insights, Inc.

AC:  Clients often ask us for help choosing the right type of research – and new methods are coming out all the time.  Our recent qualitative work with you and JSC led to significant changes in marketing strategy – and tangible successes.  So why does it sometimes feel old-fashioned to recommend a focus group?

Anne: Our clients are forward- thinking, so they’re eager to try ‘new and different’ research techniques, but there is still so much to learn from a good, in-person focus group.  For one thing, we develop screening criteria very carefully — and have fantastic recruiters with whom we’ve worked for years — so we know exactly who the consumers are who we’re getting in the room.

AC: A major flaw of the cheap and cheerful online survey…

Anne: Absolutely.  Without really good recruiting, you’re essentially blind about your audience.  Who is answering your questions? What do you know about their preferences?  It’s like the old joke – “online, no one knows you’re a dog.”  You don’t know if the people answering your survey are representative of your target consumer, and their views are often polarized (really favorable or really critical) because polarized thinkers are the ones most likely to answer a survey.

AC: I know I always feel hemmed in by multiple choice surveys.

Anne:  Yes, that’s another limitation of surveys — the questions are static, whereas real-live moderators are adaptive.  Once I meet respondents, I start to get to know them, then I can tailor my questions so I understand their individual vantage points.  I’m not just listening to a data point and checking off a box.

AC:  Is there value in talking with a group rather than individuals?

Anne:  I don’t know if it’s mirror neurons at work or what, but give me a couple of groups of six people in a room for two hours and I can get a very representative view of your consumer needs. There’s something about the group dynamic that is really magical, especially for generating consumer insights.

AC: And for generating the not-so-obvious insights?

Anne: Absolutely.  If you think about it logically, a survey frames the answers it wants by the questions it asks, right?  Big data does the same.  Both measure only what is there, what’s been thought of already – often by someone very very close to the subject.  In a well-run focus group people build on each other’s insights, and talk about things they aren’t quick to share elsewhere.  Sometimes very emotional things.  And those deeper, more emotional insights are what really connect in the messaging.

online focus group

AC: For the study we conducted together for Yale, you recommended online focus groups.  Why did you forgo the in-room dynamic for this project?

Anne: Oh, we didn’t forgo the in-room dynamic — we just relocated it to cyberspace!  The Yale project was a perfect example of where technology actually made a rich qualitative project possible. We needed to talk to students located on college campuses across the country, during the busy academic year — without spending a ton of time or money. So we recruited a dozen or so kids to “meet” on-line.  Using webcams we could all see one another onscreen and I could expose stimuli for them to review. We had super-dynamic conversations about what these kids are looking for in a summer experience during their college years.  From there JSC identified three attitudinal/behavioral segments and pinpointed a very specific type of student we believed would be most interested in Yale Summer School.

AC: And they were.  Those insights led us to refocus the strategy which raised student applications significantly in time for this year’s summer sessions.

Anne: That is so gratifying to hear!

AC: Talk to me about the pros and cons of ethnographic studies.

Anne:  Ethnographic research is a fantastic deep dive into the lifestyle and mindset of your consumers.  Great for observing how they use your product in real life and/or for understanding how they make a purchase decision at shelf.  The downside is they aren’t efficient.  They take a lot of time and don’t always yield the big insights clients are hoping for.

For clients who are set on them, we recommend starting with focus groups, then selecting the most representative respondents from the groups to visit with — in their home, a store, their office, or wherever they would be using the product or service.  The in depth pre-screening makes all the difference in your yield.  It also lets us develop hypotheses from the group conversation, then fine-tune them in the field.

AC:  So you get the insights of a focus group and the validation from the ethnographic  observations.

Anne: Precisely.

AC: So the focus group is still alive and well?

Anne:  We’re actually seeing a resurgence of interest in focus groups among our clients.

AC: Well, you won’t say this about yourself, so I have to add that the experience of the moderator /analyst makes a huge difference in achieving actionable insights.  What clients don’t always realize is that an experienced moderator is aligning the information on the fly – forming a seemingly-random conversation into logical tracks as the session moves forward.   It’s an invisible process, and it takes experience and intelligence to do it well.

Anne: Thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment.

AC: You should.  Thanks so much for your time!