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Ah, the focus group. Talk to some marketers and it’s an invaluable (albeit imperfect) method for gathering consumer insights. Talk to others and it’s the devil’s favorite research methodology, reliably shooting down amazing ideas for over 50 years.

So which is it?

Many people have proclaimed the death of the “traditional” in-person focus group over the years, saying that it could (and should) be replaced with other methods.

If that’s truly the case, let’s take a look at the current alternatives for capturing consumer insight to see if we can finally proclaim the focus group to be dead after 50+ years of life…

  • Interviews – Valuable for in-depth exploration of a topic with one individual, but they lack the ability to hear how a target audience talks to each other, as well as build on the dynamics of a group to produce interesting new ideas and insights.
  • Social media monitoring – 1% of vocal internet users posting on Twitter or Facebook does not make a proper focus group killer. Social media analysis is useful for identifying topics that can be explored further in focus groups, but it’s not a replacement for them.
  • Ethnography – Now here we’re on to something. Observational research methods are about as good as you can get when it comes to identifying actual behaviors and unmet needs. However, ethnography is very expensive, time consuming and difficult to do. Few marketers have the time, budget or patience for it. It’s also less useful for exploring specific concepts in-depth.
  • Online surveys – Despite what some people might think, open ends in a survey are a poor approximation for qualitative insight. Having a dialogue with people and the ability to probe deeper into the feedback is critical to uncovering real insights.
  • Website analytics – Useful for identifying what people are doing on a website and maybe even how they are doing it, but poor at telling you why they are doing something. Also, obviously only useful for online marketers…
  • Big data – Similar to website analytics, big data analysis can tell you “what” has happened, but will never be able to tell you “why” it happened.

As you can see, none of these methods can properly replace the focus group.

So what now? If we can’t kill the focus group, can we at least save it?

Yes. And here is how…

Here is what the focus group needs to survive (and thrive):

  • It needs to be faster – Few marketers can wait 5-6 weeks for the results from focus groups. They need answers now. And while they’re at it…
  • It needs to be cheaper – In 2014, ESOMAR estimated that the average in-person focus group in the US costs nearly $9,000 (with costs rising every year since). That’s insane. So much money is unnecessarily wasted in renting facilities, travel, food, etc.
  • It needs to be easier – Few people have the luxury of leaving the office for days or weeks at a time to observe focus groups. There are always other, more pressing projects to attend to.
  • It needs to move online – To make focus groups faster, cheaper and easier, they almost certainly need to move online. There is only so much you can do to improve in-person groups because they are inherently limited by geography.
  • It needs to better control for bias – In-person groups suffer from “group think” and bias that can taint the results, whereas this can be controlled/eliminated in online focus groups.
  • It needs to better fit the lifestyles of participants – Asking people to travel downtown after a long day at work to answer questions in a sterile conference room ranks right up there with jury duty as their favorite activities. Why not let them participate from the comfort of their home?
  • It needs to get out of the artificial confines of a conference room – Related to the above, sticking people in an artificial room with people watching from behind a one-way mirror causes observer bias and the “Hawthorne effect,” leading to biased results.

(I could go on, but hopefully you get the point)

In summary…

The focus group isn’t dead, it just desperately needs to evolve…

After all, focus groups are just a relatively efficient way of capturing qualitative feedback from a small, targeted group of people. It’s just a research methodology.

To blame focus groups for the outright failure of any product is ludicrous, and ignores the realities of marketing and product development.

To outright dismiss the approach because “Steve Jobs didn’t like focus groups” is equally ludicrous. Few people have the vision he had. I hate to break it to you, but you (and I) are not Steve Jobs. People like us need consumer insights to make better, more informed decisions.

Despite all the cool kids bashing it, billions of dollars are still spent on focus groups each year. Clearly someone, somewhere is getting some value out of focus groups, or they wouldn’t be spending that kind of money on them…

Now we just need to make sure that is money well spent…

Join us at SpeedyGroups as we “update” the focus group to the needs of marketers in the 21st century.