Inside the Mix

The findings of focus groups can only be as dependable as the participants are honest

The findings of focus groups can only be as dependable as the participants are honest

About a year ago, I helped a telemarketer fatten up his commission by agreeing to take part in some market research.

As a marketing journalist, such requests are irresistible, so I not only took part in the phone poll, I signed up with a company that coordinates focus groups.

For a long time I've wanted to attend one to see the way they're held and the type of person who attends. Unfortunately, each time they ask me what I do for a living, and each time I tell them, the reply is the same: "Oh, I'm sorry, we can't have a journalist on this one." Why I've stayed honest, I'm not quite sure (a friend of mine in the industry tells them he's in educational publishing in order to qualify), though it probably has something to do with a sense of wanting to perpetuate truth in marketing. And being found out.

In a Q&A I saw with the CEO of AcuPoll, Jack Gordon, he described traditional focus groups as "archaic." A key problem, he says, is that they can cause a "move to the familiar" by allowing people to, as a group, overthink and talk themselves out of original and individual thinking, and instead head toward a more homogenous reaction.

Another huge problem with focus groups is one that the marketing industry has been long aware of - the attendance of "focus groupies." These are the people who attend time after time for the money, free food and drink, and the feeling of being important and influential. They can cast a shadow of doubt over the reliability of the process to accurately reflect the marketplace; after a while, many know what people expect to hear and either deliver that or purposely subvert it for thrills. Sometimes they are able to guess what any mystery company, brand, or product might be, which can add another layer of obfuscation to the results.

My aforementioned friend, who has participated in a handful of focus groups, attests that the focus groupies (of which he's not one, he promises) can have a limiting effect on the proceeds, particularly by leading the group toward a consensus. New members feel unwilling to speak their minds a lot of the time. "The incentive to really give your opinion is not very great," he tells me.

AcuPoll, while admitting that it does "omnibus schedules" (which sound suspiciously like focus groups), says that what's needed to avoid the normal pitfalls of traditional group sessions is a methodology to help find people's emotional connection to a product or brand, and to get results from quantifying people's individual reactions, rather than taking a group consensus.

I'm sure AcuPoll is not the only company that adds more sophisticated layers to the process, but when two of my coworkers confirmed hearing recruitment practices that go along the lines of, "Do you like Coke? No? Well, I'll just put down that you do anyway," one is made aware of the wide range in the quality of results these studies are likely to lead to. With AcuPoll stating that product launches have between a 75% and 90% failure rate, you've got to imagine that a lot of people who are invited to focus groups aren't as honest as I am.

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