Babita Baruah
Aug 03, 2011

Babita's Blog: A Day in a Focus Group

Babita Baruah, vice president and client services director, JWT Delhi, is a firm believer in qualitative research but feels the cardinal rules are being forgotten

Babita's Blog: A Day in a Focus Group

One of the high points in the world of advertising and marketing is quali research.

Client Agency teams handpicked to attend such sessions land up at the venue in a flotilla of hired cars, often with airlines tags dangling from the laptop bags as they walk up winding stairways into the “venue”, usually a two or three star hotel in the suburbs, or a ground floor flat in a Housing Society, making themselves comfortable on the bed, chairs and stools.

Field recruiters walk in and around with respondents in tow. The research agency people scurry around offering water, tea, coffee, cold drinks,  chips and samosas, sometimes stumbling on the thick black cables concealed and taped under the carpets. There are men manning the camera, the door, the headsets.

The client agency team whips out the stimulus- boards in the days of yore, a pen drive nowadays. And “brief” the moderator on the objectives and take outs. The moderator digests all the months of strategy and creative ideation summary and gets set.

The groups begin with the usual warm up - “We are from a research company and we are recording this for our internal purposes only”. Nowadays there is an additional request to keep the cellphones on Silent mode. The audio recorder is switched on- almost ceremoniously.  The atmosphere is anything but a normal and regular day in the life of the consumer but that’s what focus groups are all about.

And the research begins.  The respondents nod intelligently and peer into the TV screen.

The client agency team stares wordlessly as some of the best work which everyone had betted on passes by like a ship in the night. Takes furious shorthand notes on laptops when the respondents start  the suggestions on “how to make this ad better”.

Furtive discussions and small slips on scraps of paper are sent in to the moderator. “What is the brand connect”, “How is this ad different from competition” and such stuff. 

Groups over.   The respondents troop out clutching gift wrapped packets. A quick client agency meeting, debates, counter debates commence at the venue itself. Was the recruitment right? Was the stimulus right? Junior team members make quick update calls to seniors. Moderator also inputs. And a decision is arrived at.  Action points drafted and minuted. Well almost. We need to wait officially for the debrief.

After 15 years in the industry and having worked with some of the best quali research agencies, I am a firm believer.  Quali research (using Focus groups as a term loosely here) is absolutely essential.  We do need consumer validation on directions and validation.  We also need to understand any gross negatives or things like whether we, sitting in our agency client cabins, have completely ignored the person who will buy the brand.

But, and this is the big “but”.

Increasingly, research seems to be used to actually let the consumers decide on the creative and/or strategy.  

Increasingly, focus groups happen overnight  with inhouse client agency  teams.

Increasingly, the client agency team has just no time to wait for the formal debrief. So a topline report is sent within 24 hours. Maybe 12.

We seem to have forgotten the cardinal rules of quali research.

That the “unsaid” is more revealing than the “said”.

That stated intent may be quite different from actual behavior .

That all of us are prone to some amount of “untruths”, especially in a room full of strangers.

That the buying behavior has a lot to do with the subconscious mind and not just what people say they will do.

That it is after all about hypothetical scenarios.

That very few would like to admit a radical view - much easier to go with the flow.

That focus groups are not a co-creation process.

That the more innovative the idea is, the longer it will take for respondents to accept and react.

It’s all about human behavior and interpretation.

By people who are trained .

Research is to validate. Not to decide.

To make the most out of these “groups”, we need to educate ourselves and the teams on what to glean out and what to sift. We need to understand the research agency’s report in detail, instead of confidently arriving at conclusions based on our own observations. We definitely need to plan for time for a good briefing to the research agency, a quality recruitment, and a good debrief.

There is a science behind this and all of us are not equipped to wear this hat, much as we would love to.

In our zeal for showing “proof” on paper rather than our own gut feel and instinct, most of us tend to overlook the vital truth.

That the final call can never be taken by consumers.

That Marketing and Advertising decisions cannot be democratized.

That prerogative will always be ours.

The views expressed are the author's independent views as an ad professional and do not reflect the organisation's viewpoint.






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