The Focus Group – Is it Dead Yet?

By sidpink

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If a half-century of focus groups has taught us anything, it is this: People can’t tell you what they want or what they would do with any accuracy. It’s nearly impossible to get people to tell you the truth in a traditional focus group. Instead the individuals try to fit in within the artificial social setting, here they tell you what they believe you or the group wants to hear—not what they actually think or feel. They read what the others in the room find acceptable—but, rarely provide their deep-down true emotional reactions/insight that will drive their behavior.

A simple example would be a focus group we were involved with several years ago involving a large hospital in the NE. During the data gathering process we asked people a simple question: If you were alone and suffering severe chest pains, would you call “911” for an ambulance? This would seem to be a no-brainer. An unsurprising 91% answered YES.

But, something strange happened when we cross-referenced the statistical data from the same hospital. We found that when actual chest-pain sufferers faced possible death and a choice between calling for aid in the form of a rapid response by trained medical personnel, or a slower response from untrained and emotionally-upset family members and friends, which way did an overwhelming majority of actual chest-pain sufferers intuitively choose? They went for the panicky, untrained, friend’s and- family option, hands down. The true percentage of those who called 911 was only 23%.

This seems incredibly “illogical” – not to mention stupid – unless you understand how people actually make apparently unique decisions. In this case, our role as social primates trumped medical “logic.” Our subjects wanted medical care, but they intuitively needed the reassuring presence of people with whom they shared a close personal bond — even if it meant that actual medical care was delayed.

Time and time again, large corporations follow focus group results to the letter and what does it get them – New Coke, The Pontiac Aztek, as well as, The Gap and Tropicana Orange Juice brand change flubs. My years of experience with these corporate types tells me they treat focus group data as the final word for several reasons – They don’t have to make a decision. They can better argue a point in a committee like setting with backup data. And worse yet – in the event of failure they can point to the focus group as the scapegoat.

Since large companies will always search for answers shouldn’t social media be seen as a much more decisive tool to replace focus groups? What if Tropicana listened to the chatter in blogs, a costly packaging fiasco could have been avoided. It can’t be denied that the Tropicana design architect, Peter Arnell has great insight. However, in the end the consumer did not think like the designer’s own indoor focus group survey. There’s no denying that indoor surveys reveal important dimensions of customers’ attitude, However, we must reevaluate their use as well as create better ways to utilize more “organic”“ social media surveys in terms of applicability and acceptability of ideas to a larger audience.

With social media, if someone is taking it upon themselves to offer an opinion, it is likely this opinion is on something they know, rather than just offering an opinion in exchange for a slice of cake, fifty bucks and a warm room. However, less specific questions mean that it can be difficult to amalgamate and benchmark responses. As opposed to “Social Media” Sample groups are larger, more educated about the product or service and brake barriers geographically. For example a participant could be sitting in the remotest area of the village and participate in a discussion about the product or service in REAL TIME.

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