19th of July 2019

By Professor Byron Sharp Director Ehrenberg-Bass Institute
Published by Research World See original article

I do hope focus groups are going out of fashion

However, I suspect they aren’t. Marketers today are better educated about alternatives, and about the problems with focus groups, but the drama and speed of focus groups makes them attractive. Today, I see them used outside of marketing, e.g. by medicos, engineers, transport planners, even school children. Part of the attraction for some people is their mistaken belief that the qualitative data needs no analysis, and that there is no need for a research design, nor a representative sample. That sounds even easier than a customer satisfaction survey – anyone can do it!

Recently on twitter I spoke up for alternatives to focus groups:

I’m open minded. But evidence driven. Every senior researcher in my Institute has experience running focus groups. Very popular, money making, but we stopped because (ethics) we find we can always think of better options.

Some of the drawbacks of focus groups (compared to other qualitative approaches) are well known:

  • each respondent only gets to speak for a few minutes
  • one or few people can dominate/distort the view
  • the sample is usually very small because focus groups are so expensive per person

In the discussion that ensued on twitter no one denied these problems. Nor did Mark Ritson in his entertaining account of the discussion. But most felt focus groups were still useful “under some conditions”.  Now that’s nice and conciliatory but, given the agreed problems with focus groups and that there are good alternatives, proponents of focus groups really need to spell out the specific conditions where focus groups would be appropriate best practice.  And they should provide evidence; more than anecdotes along the lines of “I’ve used them many times and I’m a successful marketer”.

Anyone who has worked on the phones recruiting focus group participants can explain why focus groups are so expensive per respondent. Because it’s difficult to get anyone to agree to attend. And you have to recruit more people than required because many won’t show up on the night.  Because, unlike other qualitative approaches, focus groups require a great deal from respondents. Even though they will each only get to speak for a few minutes the session will take hours out of their day. They have to make their way to our premises, at our time of choosing. So the people who do turn up in our groups will be a bit weird/unusual.

Some market research companies try to keep costs down by maintaining a list of willing participants – something few agencies like bringing to the attention of their clients who understandably don’t want groups full of professional focus group junkies.

Small samples are always dangerous. And with small weird samples you just don’t know what to believe.

Long ago some qualitative researchers would use the ludicrous excuse that clients don’t need focus group results to be generalisable. Of course we aren’t trying to estimate something precise (e.g. what proportion of people own cats) but we absolutely need the focus group to be representative. Because we aren’t interested in the specific eight people around the table, we are interested in them as representatives of our target market.

Some decades ago academic researchers (publishing in places like the Journal of Consumer Research), would defend their small convenience samples (usually of US undergraduate students), on the grounds that they were exploring fundamentals of human behaviour. Until researchers started to check, and ah oh… the sample really does matter.

I do wish people worried more about the fundamental sampling problem of focus groups. To try to even partially correct for such bias vastly increases their costs, making ethnographic alternatives even more attractive.

This is why marketers should do fewer focus groups and instead go out and observe shoppers/consumers. Interview them, as individuals and small groups. Talk to salespeople and retailers. Triangulate methods, interviewers, and analysts.

Before you commission (or sell) a focus group ask yourself whether on this occasion it is better that we go to the customer or require them to come to us?

Armstrong, J. S. (2006). How to make better forecasts and decisions: avoid face-to-face meetings. Foresight, 5, 3-8.
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.
Ritson, M (2019). Ethnography beats focus groups hands-down, but they still serve a purpose. Marketing Week. 11 July 2019.

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