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Focus Groups Still Relevant – Except When They’re Not

By Walter Blotkamp, VP – Client Relationships

Many years ago, an excellent marketing colleague returned from a class and told me we needed to do a discrete choice study. When I asked him what topic he had in mind, he said “none” – just that we should be doing a study like this because it seemed everyone else was. I smiled not only because we actually had such a choice study planned but because it was another example of form not necessarily following function in research. My colleague’s desire to implement a new method was so strong it outweighed the most basic question for research: what is the purpose?

I was reminded of this during recent conversations about qualitative research. Amidst various postings and diatribes outlining bad experiences with focus groups, some clients have begun to wonder if focus groups are too “old hat.” Some have even suggested that millennials in particular may not be as responsive to focus groups as they are to online approaches. To us at MMR, the nature of inquiry hasn’t changed with the advent of new tools. Just as when the printing press was invented the nature of writing did not change (distribution yes, writing no), the fundamental hows and whys that drive qualitative exploration remain intact.

In our experience, perceptions of “bad data” from focus groups arise more from poor design/preparation/recruiting than from any inherent issues with focus groups themselves.

In fact, we believe that we should be demanding MORE of focus groups and allow for the “intuitive leaps” they are best designed for.

In recent years, industry desire for speed and definitiveness have led focus groups to sometimes act as substitutes for the quantitative research that is really needed. Focus groups can’t generate a “path analysis” of all behavioral components nor conclusively establish various preferences.  But they frequently uncover potential drivers and needs states for which solutions can be developed and evaluated against.

We do not mean to suggest that other qualitative methods can’t create stronger client engagement – in fact, they often do. And that engagement is critical to insight generation and impact. But in our experience, people do NOT convey fundamentally different things in focus group  settings than they do in other group settings. While nuances can be found and ethnographies can of course uncover behaviors that focus groups do not, such learning from multiple methods tends to be incremental, not conflicting nor redundant.

Choosing the Best Method to Inform the Decision

The faster/better/cheaper mindset is at play here as it is in all research methods decisions. We continue to recommend traditional focus groups where it makes sense to do so and bulletin boards, web cam interviews, in-home interviews, and central location IDIs when they are the more appropriate method. In our experience, it is ALWAYS instructive to ask how any other method is BETTER than a traditional focus group to inform the business decision at hand.

In most cases, we find that tools such as web cams and online bulletin boards serve as a replacement for in-person IDIs rather than a substitute for focus groups. That is, they are best suited when the NATURE of the inquiry suggests that one-to-ones are called for more than a group discussion. We recognize that with careful planning and skilled moderation, bulletin boards can create interaction among members but generally we find them to be LESS interactive than focus groups. If idea generation and point-counterpoint is central to the task at hand, we continue to find focus groups more appropriate and thus still a highly relevant approach.

For example, we recently spoke to teachers about new classroom materials. While we could have posted the materials on a national online bulletin board, instead we spread the materials out across the table and had the teachers thumb through them. Discussing how they would or would not be able to use the materials both created evaluative feedback and uncovered new product uses and ideas. Here, the traditional focus group was not only relevant, it was unquestionably the best approach.

Client Team Participation

A common observation about online qualitative methods is that, in addition to wider geographic participation, more client team members can be involved without the cost of travel or focus group streaming. While this is a well-intended thought, it begs the question of whether extended team members actively engage when given the opportunity.

We recall an east coast firm that went to the west coast following other locations for research. As the west coast sessions were winding down, a team member remarked that the west coast sessions were particularly insightful and was trying to pinpoint the reason. When it was pointed out that back room observers were responding to fewer emails and had less personal home communications due to the time difference, it dawned on the team that the improved effectiveness for them was due largely to greater attentiveness and less “in and out” listening. The advantage that online tools offer for greater team participation is often not realized because “other stuff comes up.”

Building on Focus Group Insights

While the embracing of online qualitative tools is certainly warranted where appropriate, we at MMR are more excited about an expanded use of qualitative research. Somewhat paradoxically in this age of Big Data and algorithmic prediction, getting ahead of the market can still mean getting “into” the heads of consumers rather than just trying to predict behavior from existing data. Increasingly, we have combined methods such as using in-home discovery followed by “at lab” product use with the same sample. With rapid prototyping/design thinking, we have first used in-person and web cam IDIs to discover process and gaps, then used online bulletin boards for evaluation/feedback on design iteration.

Such two-stage qualitative research has proven effective in generating better understanding of path-to-purchase and product usage. Whether combining observational data with focus group discussion, or facility-based IDIs with home-based web cam IDIs, we have cut wider swaths of consumer understanding. In a recent example, we hosted a national online bulletin board where consumers discussed food preparation then held a traditional focus group with local bulletin board participants to discuss the experience combined with live food prep, creating a far greater process understanding than doing either alone would have. In this case, both traditional focus groups and traditional IDIs were integral to insight generation and foresight development.


So, before relegating focus groups to the dustbin, try demanding MORE from them. As with all great research, it all starts by gaining sufficient clarity on the PURPOSE of the research… NOT ‘What do we want to know?” but “Why do we want to know it?” Just as big data insights don’t end with the analysis of one data set and development of a never-changing algorithm, qualitative initiatives can often benefit from expanded inquiry beyond a single set of focus groups or IDIs to serve the purpose at hand. Such expansion creates greater confidence in those intuitive leaps that focus groups are best designed to create.