Are Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) Worth the Trouble?

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 1417 , Published on 31 March 2013

A phone call late night.

“Dude, where are you, wherever you are, run, RUN NOW to the C-Block Common Room.”

That’s all that’s said.

Poor me gathers his wits and reaches the spot. There’s a bunch of serious looking folk around. Mind you, serious-looking. Aneeshwar, the senior who called me up, asks me to settle down on a chair and sit tight.

Their senior team explains the situation to us. And that’s how land up in my 1st Focus Group Discussion. It’s an altogether different story that the discussion was about cigarette smoking and kicking the habit, and I’d never smoked in my life. And yet, there were people who rambled on and on about their inspirational stories and what not!

I believe any present-day b-school kid would connect with my story. It’s usually the seniors who introduce us to the concept (Could it be because we make brilliant guinea pigs?). Then we’re taught that businesses and organizations rely on focus groups to obtain feedback on their products and services. That’s where they generate true marketing insight. But the other night got me thinking, do they really work the way they’re supposed to? Do we need a rethink? Can we extract better information from our groups?

Here’s why I think focus groups go wildly wrong. They’re just not the right place to tap true feelings of the consumer! Humans are complex, our minds work in mysterious ways, and when asked to frame a single sentence which consists of what we really feel about a product X or a political party Y, most of us take the easy way out and say the things we’re supposed to say. We Lie!

In a bunch of 15 strangers, why would anyone wish to portray a negative image of them? Especially considering the fact that you’re supposed to express your true feelings to people whom you’ve met 16 minutes back and who’ve explicitly ASKED you to TRUST them! Hence people tend to say things that create an ideal, positive persona, but in the real world out there, they might just be the opposite!

Professor Gerald Zaltman, in his book, ‘How Consumers Think’, says that the correlation between true intent and displayed behaviour is usually low and negative. Probably a reason 80% of the products vetted through focus groups, such as Pepsi Edge end up being failures!

So, what do we do now? Are there solutions? Let’s look at what companies have been up to when it comes to looking for insights.

Immersion Groups : Started by Yahoo. 4-5 people with whom Yahoo’s developers interact informally, without a moderator. Leads to sessions where the actual users sit with developers to design a product they’d want to use. Now, isn’t this a lot more sensible?

The people you interact with are not thinking about the right answers, or whether or not they’d be judged! It’s just another conversation! The sheer richness of the output of such conversations is value enough to chuck FGDs out the window and adopt such an idea!

Instant Message Style Online Panels : Done by Pepsi. 80-100 people with a quick, simple, yes-no based online survey. This works because it shields people from the influence of the group. Of course, one could question the integrity of the survey, whether or not the people who actually entered the survey, did so seriously? But then again, I think we’ve conclusive proof that FGDs aren’t any better in this aspect!

Observing Daily Life : Kimberley-Clark Corp. tried this one out. No focus groups involved. The company was seeing a slip in sales of Huggies baby-wipes . Focus groups weren’t revealing anything. Instead of putting a camera ON the people, they gave the mothers glasses with a camera mounted on them. Seeing what they saw proved more insightful than any discussions ever would. Even though women spoke of changing diapers on diaper tables, they did so on any surface that they could find! This just made it more difficult to manage multiple containers and lotions simultaneously! As KC realized this, they successfully redesigned and released new products in the market that would solve this particular problem!

Focus Groups have been around for a pretty long time. The idea here is that focus groups are useful when the ones conducting the discussions have already invested plenty of time and resources and are using the FGD to validate their concepts and initiatives. I’m not saying it’s time to move on from FGDs, but now that we’re moving on to innovative forms of marketing, it’s about time we get moving on innovation in research methodologies as well!

This article has been authored by Parth Kapoor from IIM Indore.


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