Campaign India Team
Sep 20, 2012

Opinion: Die focus group, die

BBH Asia-Pacific strategic planner Adil Ismeer (pictured) takes a passionate stand against the good old fashioned focus group.

Ismeer: "Talk to the culture formers rather than the culture followers"

We’ve all sat in them. Or, shall I say we’ve all been trapped in them; those mind-numbing sessions with 30-something housewives discussing their choice of dishwashing liquid. In many of them, you may spot a senior marketing director whose eyes are beginning to glaze over as his head starts tilting dangerously forwards. And who could blame him for almost falling asleep. Focus groups are so incredibly dull. Most times, we learn nothing new from them; we merely confirm our original notions.  Yes, they shower twice a day. They will buy more it if it’s on promotion. New flavours and scents will make them curious to try.

But surprisingly, these archaic research methods are still being touted as the primary channel to explore our consumers’ behaviour and desires. Every day there are major decisions still being made based off of these quick ‘consumer snapshots’.

I believe the focus group is an outdated research methodology that needs to be exiled. Here are my reasons why.

1.The people in focus groups are dumb.

Ok, maybe I’m being a little extreme here - but think about the composition of most groups – these people have travelled far and wide to spend two hours on a Monday morning discussing nappies for a token sum (often less than $50). They are not representative of the pragmatic, savvy consumers that make up the bulk of our target—the ones that are busy living, the ones that have jobs and families to take care of. The people in focus groups are too often only there because they had nothing better to do. These are not people at the forefront of trends or, indeed, of what is going on in life in general. I think my creative director put it most eloquently when he once asked me—‘where do they find these knuckle-draggers?’ And we are putting million-dollar decisions in their hands.

2.There are always going to be people who disagree.

This is a truth of life. If you take 5 people and expose them to anything—whether it’s the new Lady Gaga track, or the Mona Lisa, there will almost always be people who love it and people who hate it. And this is exactly what happens in focus groups—invariably there will be people who like some concepts and some that don’t. Unfortunately, the importance of the few that dislike it is magnified exponentially by researchers and risk-averse clients. As a result, most creative work ends up dying through a thousand cuts. Imagine if poor Leonardo Da Vinci ended up having to change the Mona Lisa because there were a few people who were irritated by her half smile.

3.Not everyone can think conceptually.

‘Use your imagination!’ says the moderator. But it is difficult for people to see the grander vision behind most research stimulus, which is why often you will see them picking on the quality of the storyboards and drawings. You would never see an Apple engineer pulling a man off the street to talk about a hypothetical device that could revolutionise the electronics industry. In fact, when Steve Jobs first announced that Apple, largely a computer company, would be creating a portable hard-disk based MP3 player, most people wrote him off as a crazy person. However, when he put those iPods in people’s hands, it all changed.

4.Focus groups do not account for the importance of execution.

A group of explorers travel to a distant land in search of opportunity, but they find resistance in the natives. That is the basic premise of hugely successful movie, Avatar. If we had run focus groups for the concept of Avatar, most would have dismissed it to be a bit passé. Even the best references would have fallen short of the end product. Most focus groups take out hugely important executional considerations that will make or break a piece of communications—having talent, music, and visual style all coming together makes the ultimate difference in whether a piece of work resonates or not.

5.People are expected to make rational decisions in focus groups.

A famous study conducted by the University of Virginia hypothesised that when people are forced to explain their choices, they choose the option that can be more easily rationalised. To prove this, they gave two groups of people an option to select between two types of art—representative (a vase of flowers) or abstract (a Picasso). But only one group had to explain their choice of art. The people that didn’t have to explain their rationale consistently chose more abstract art than the ones who had to defend their choices. A few weeks later, they were also the people that were by far the happier with their choice. So asking people ‘why do you like this’, as we do in most focus groups can have a significant impact on what they end up selecting as their preferred option.

If I had my way, I would outlaw focus groups. But then you may ask, what is the alternative? I think there are a number.

Firstly, we have to start trusting our gut a little more, both as clients and as agency people. We are savvy marketing and communications experts. We have years of experience talking to and living among these consumers. We are a lot better equipped to make marketing decisions than a random fellow on the street. After all, Henry Ford said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Secondly, talk to the culture formers rather than the culture followers. Rather than collecting 6 Indonesians from the street to talk about how they use social media, buy Raditya Dika a coffee and ask him about his million Twitter fans. Speak to the radio hosts, magazine editors and the people that have an insight into the lives of your consumers. These people can think conceptually and will often be able to articulate what the common man can’t be expected to.

Thirdly, when you do need to talk directly to the mainstream…don’t. Observe them instead by spending proper time in market with them. Real ethnography rather than half an hour over a cup of tea with them in their front room. The gulf between what people actually do and what they claim to do is very wide. The truth can often only be got at it by observation and spending enough time with people for them to genuinely open up—out of the glare of others and when you have become a proper confidante.

And we are just beginning as an industry to tap into the many methodologies emerging from neuroscience and behavioural economics that seek to tap into the unconscious, seemingly irrational decision making processes of people—techniques that rely more on social experiments rather than bluntly asking our consumers for answers.

If we are imaginative and brave enough then we will never have to sit through a dull, sleep-inducing focus group ever again, and we will make the investigative research process the productive, interesting thing it is meant to be. Something that stimulates and inspires rather than deadens and restricts. Something we will stay awake for.

This article first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific

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