The limitations of the focus group

Last night, I was actually a participant in a focus group. This was a new experience for me. I’ve seen groups before, even moderated a few, but never sat in the respondent’s chair. The group was about a trade magazine I subscribe to and it was clear that the brand wanted to understand where else we got news and comment from, how we ranked this magazine compared to others, and then to test some new concepts with us.

Focus groups are a useful research instrument. I’ve used them lots in the past and our sister company, FreshMinds Research, does focus groups for clients all the time. Last night I was just reminded that they’re not always the answer to a client’s needs.

Focus groups work when you’re looking for getting a small group of people to give instant reactions to and feedback on a product. Or to explore people’s attitudes to an experience of event. They don’t allow for reflection and so really suit a situation where the brand has quite well developed ideas that they want to audit or assess.

Last night’s group was a great case of where more reflection was needed. We were presented with a range of potential new formats for the magazine, sections that might be included and layouts. Each time, it was described verbally by the moderator and we were asked if it was a good idea or not and then encouraged to talk about it. As a respondent, this was actually really difficult to do. I had no time to think about one idea in any depth before we moved on to the next one. I don’t think we were able to give reasoned and intelligent responses beyond a simple “sounds good” or “not really” when presented with these ideas.

This is where online research communities can really come to the fore. They allow a longer and more reflective engagement between the brand and the respondents. In fact they’re no longer just people responding to stimulus, but members of a discussion. You can show material at an earlier stage in development and get the community members to discuss and brainstorm ideas over a longer time period. Allowing people to contribute when they have an idea and something to say, rather than dictating responses in a short time period one evening after work.

Online research communities are a great way of letting people reflect and allowing the brand to understand why they react as they do to stimuli. If people are against a concept it may not be the concept as a whole but just one aspect of it, and you’re most likely to find this out if you engage in an iterative process with them.

But most of all, focus groups rely on the participants having ideas on demand during a relatively short period. This works where the group is focused, and about reviewing and commenting on already developed ideas. But last night I was left with that awful experience where I thought more about some of the concepts we were shown on the way home.  I had ideas that I had no outlet for. The research engagement was over and so any ideas I had afterwards were not taken onboard.

The French have a phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, which means the thought you have after you’ve left a room and it’s too late to say it. There’s a real danger of this feeling with focus groups. Online research communities, on the other hand, provide a way for these kind of thoughts to be captured as part of the research process.