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The Focus Group Turns 60: Time For An Upgrade?

The focus group actually could even be a lot older than this, but it was in 1956 that sociologist, Robert Merton, wrote a book titled, The Focused Interview. The groups back then had three major components.



By Dean Macko

The focus group turns 60 this year. Make sure you know about tech-inspired methods that can potentially deliver better insights, quicker and more cost effectively.

The focus group actually could even be a lot older than this, but it was in 1956 that sociologist, Robert Merton, wrote a book titled, The Focused Interview. The groups back then had three major components:

  1. They consisted of 6-10 participants
  2. They sought to understand consumers’ motivations for doing what they do
  3. They focused on advertising, product selection, and government policies

Sound familiar? Let me ask you this. Is your company still hooked on groups? Do you gobble them up like M&M’s in a back room? Are you lining up to buy a pocket transistor radio, a wired TV remote (called “lazy bones”), or a $1,300 microwave oven from Tappan, all introduced around the same time? Boy, things have really changed – except our dependence on the focus group.

Technology, however, is giving us choices, more ways to connect with respondents on their terms. One technique I have been working on perfecting over the past 5-6 years is the asynchronous (not live) video interview, whereby the respondent is tasked with all sorts of questions and activities to be completed on their schedule, typically in the comfort of their own home. I’ll avoid calling this a video diary, because this implies that video collection happens over several days or weeks. It can be much faster than that – how’s 100 videos completely transcribed (by humans) in under an hour sound? While conducting over 250 video projects for the largest firms on earth, I have uncovered tremendous advantages to this method that in-person techniques lack:

  1. As mentioned, respondents record video answers to questions on their schedule. For many, this is later in the evening when dinner is finished and the kids are in bed. No more driving across town to make a 7pm focus group. B2B audiences especially appreciate this flexibility, given how time-starved they are.
  2. Participants record answers in the comfort of their own homes (or kitchens, vehicles, shopping trips, or wherever else they give you permission). There is nothing artificial about their settings, and no outside influencers.
  3. Because of this last point, the video responses submitted by respondents are extremely raw, emotional and authentic. Authenticity has been a major theme in research circles this past year, and this method has it. How do you behave when you’re alone? I like to sing in my car. Am I doing this in front of a group of strangers? Heck no. When respondents are alone with their devices, it’s amazing what stories they’ll tell.
  4. Everyone gets an equal voice and they answer, individually, all of your questions. No more wallflowers or alpha dogs in the house. Even the softest spoken, shy individual can record a video about how they think about your brand, product or service.
  5. Increased productivity. How many travel miles do you really want to rack up flying from city to city in an attempt to make your groups nationally representative? How long are you away from your computer (or family) NOT getting things done? With asynchronous video studies, you can sit back and watch the videos roll in from across the country, or even from across the ocean.
  6. Optimize your budget! I recently completed a full-service study in which we had n=60 participants respond to 10 video questions/activities. The final report was heavily infused with video showreels to help convey my findings and was professionally designed by a graphic artist. It included a tight Executive Summary section with major implications and recommendations. $30K all in. The client jumped on this deal after having already received several quotes in the $55K-$60K range for 6 groups across three cities.
  7. Easy to analyze. The more sophisticated video platforms will provide quick transcription and other ‘goodies’, like tagging functionality, keyword search and filtering, text analytics and in-platform video editing tools, to help the researcher analyze the content at scale and with speed. Video isn’t cumbersome anymore.
  8. Lastly, you get super-rich video content to share in the boardroom. Nothing lights up executives’ eyes more than a presentation chock-full of video. It helps the researcher with storytelling, and can be an important component to socializing your results within the organization.

Moderators should be adding tools like this to their toolkit as yet another way to bring the very best insights to their clients. The technique I outlined above won’t work for every situation, as there are plenty of reasons why focus groups or in-home ethnos make sense. If you’re really taking advantage of the group dynamic or need a deep level of probing (as is the case when the discussion is extremely technical), then an asynchronous video study may not be for you. However, keep two things in mind… 1) video participants can always be asked follow-up questions, and 2) when respondents get into ‘storytelling mode’, they are very likely to give you all the answers you’re looking for and then some.

Also remember that asynchronous video and in-person methods can co-exist. Respondents can be asked to submit homework via video prior to a focus group or ethnography. I have also seen clients leverage video as a form of audition, hand-selecting only the best respondents for in-person work. Still another group of moderators who have turned increasingly to online bulletin boards find that the video enhances their output (which has been entirely text, up until now).

Video research is hot right now, both in the qualitative and quantitative (think video open-ends) spaces. Why? Because it helps you convey your findings with impact and drive change within an organization. I would highly recommend giving it a try, either as a complement or substitute to traditional techniques, like the focus group. The method has aged gracefully, though it may be time to take a look at some new tools on the shelf.

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3 responses to “The Focus Group Turns 60: Time For An Upgrade?

  1. Nice Piece – even though I swallowed at the sentence “Also remember that asynchronous video and in-person methods can co-exist”: Really?? Is this to reassure people that Video needn’t replace the oh-so-old Group discussion? Hybrid qual. approaches embraace all sorts of technology, mobile, video, and honestly modern qual. mash-ups also embrace quant. too…..I’d stress that technology plays in qual. work best as part of a multi-modal design. We should remember that video, mobile too are often self-selecting, and therefore can’t reveal stuf that isn’t in the picture. My personal plea: more ethnography, less dependency on technology as an insights panacea. There – off the fence 😉

  2. The focus group process has fundamentally changed over time in response to the way we collect data. Years ago focus groups were constructed either demographically or by product affinity and were designed to funnel participants toward a final consensus.

    Today focus groups are really more about “unfocused response” to stimulus. Whether it’s 6-10 people in a room, 10-20 or 50 online or a chat based approach, many times the groups are exposed to a more interactive process where information is often introduced from a number of sources because participants have different media/content profiles and varying degrees of exposure. This is important because it’s how the real world works, not a isolated snap shot around a topic. What that does for understanding is immense because it allows a concept, product, service or idea to float among a real time exposure. If you then couple that with real time analytics around the ideation, concept or product, it perks or it doesn’t. It makes for murkier performances but it clearly defines winners.

    When fgs are done early on, you can then create more focus around development and market entry. You can also create multiple onfgs that simultaneously test variations or parallel products. We have come a long way since the days of isolated testing and perhaps the real answer is that the need is to rename focus groups to a more app name like say preference audits.

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Dean Macko

Dean Macko

Research Vice President, Voxpopme