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Focus groups have become a requirement for testing everything from product launches to political campaigns. Even though few in the industry question their value, a huge gap exists between customer intentions expressed in focus groups and behavior in the marketplace.

Focus Groups Don't WorkWhy? Simply put, focus groups are not a forum for tapping “true” feelings. People have complex, even conflicting motivations which often come together in unpredictable ways when faced with making decisions. And, furthermore, people often lie.

“The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative,” writes Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in his influential book How Customers Think. After all, he notes, 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots—virtually all of which are screened by focus groups—routinely fail in the marketplace.

Here’s why:

  • The motivations of those who participate in focus groups are quite varied. Some come because they want the money, not because they have a deep desire to express their consumer preferences. Others come for the opportunity to interact with new people or to get up on their soapbox and preach. Still others spend a lot of time trying to figure out precisely who is doing the testing.
  • Many focus group participants do indeed lie – mostly unwittingly, of course – often because they do not understand their own motivations and preferences and thus cannot articulate them well. They lie about why they do things, confusing what they wish with what they actually do (unconscious lies); they make up reasons to justify their preference to themselves and say what they think the moderator wants to hear (polite lies); and they contradict themselves without realizing it.
  • People tend to express views which enhance their own image of themselves. They may give acceptable or politically correct responses in front of peers and will likely act differently in real situations compared with hypothetical ones.
  • Most of the thoughts and feelings that influence consumers’ behavior occur in the unconscious mind. “Unconscious thoughts are the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do,” Zaltman said in an interview. “In the space of five or 10 minutes in a focus group, which is the average airtime per person, you can’t possibly get at one person’s unconscious thinking.”
  • The focus group forum is all wrong: communicating with a bunch of strangers, being led in a discussion by another stranger, is unnatural. Are focus group leaders really able to instill trust in such a short period of time? Without it, how can you elicit the true feelings of participants?
  • Another conceptual flaw: focus groups frequently ask people to make snap judgments about products they haven’t seen or used. People tend to formulate opinions “on the spot,” lacking any real commitment to what they say. Often they know absolutely nothing about the product, or have never experienced it. It’s essentially abstracted from their reality.

So, what’s a marketer to do when seeking a qualitative methodology? Are there true alternatives to focus groups?

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Consider what companies like Yahoo began implementing some years back: “immersion groups” four or five people with whom Yahoo’s product developers talk informally, without a professional moderator typical of focus groups. That leads to work sessions in which a few select consumers work together with Yahoo staffers to actually design a new product. The outcome is often richer when consumers feel included in the process, not just observed.

Going online to get at true consumer behavior is drawing increasing interest from marketers. Invoke is one of many research firms popping up whose outreach to consumers is based on connecting via the Web with a qual-quant approach. This hybrid methodology is very effective in product concept testing, as well as communications and advertising testing because the qualitative components of concept evaluation and quantitative needs of market acceptance testing can be combined – and very quickly.

In the end, recognizing that a focus group methodology is a time-honored tradition, we should accept it for what it does best: validate initiatives or concepts in which the people commissioning the focus groups have already invested vast resources and time. While a focus group methodology is supposed to explore the psychological needs of consumers, it may serve as much to fulfill the psychological needs of sellers.




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