Companies seeking information on how target markets experience their brands, products or services are increasingly likely to call in focus groups. Individually unremarkable, the members of these groups come together to form a critical mass apparently invested with folk wisdom and highly prized insights.
However, marketers are realising that focus groups suffer the usual problems such as the difficulty of getting every member to respond with equal clarity and reliability.
Andrew Irving, managing director of Andrew Irving Associates, has a reputation for the ability to conduct focus groups with “difficult” categories of people. Irving believes domineering respondents should be dealt with early on in a focus group meeting.
“They dominate because they are quicker or more articulate. If they’re expressing themselves in a co-operative way, we say: that’s very helpful, but would someone else like to come in? Establishing first name terms with everyone in the group helps when you’re changing direction. You can address the shy person and with luck he or she will have something to say.”
The human touch makes people feel welcome, he says, and this builds trust.
“You go around the room and ask people fairly simple questions about themselves which they can all answer. Talking about work, family and children makes them feel confident about being able to participate and also tells you about what sort of people you’ve got in the group and how confident or articulate they are.”
Janine Braier, managing director of Define, also uses a simple introductory ploy to get groups talking.
“A technique called the Name Game is the best way of encouraging full participation. Everyone says their initial and everyone else has to guess their name. The moderator initiates it by pushing for participation. It can get a bit rowdy but that encourages shy people to get involved. Using the name itself, which is bound up with each person’s identity makes them feel involved.”
At the other extreme of focus group practice, there are those who automate the process as far as possible. Peter Knowles is marketing director for IML, which provides automated response technology for focus groups. Using handsets, group members can provide anonymous responses or offer a gut reaction to whatever they are asked to watch.
Knowles sees the technology as complementary to traditional methods.
“I don’t think one replaces the other at all – it’s designed to enrich the experience. It helps you to catch what perhaps you don’t know because of peer pressure or other things that are going on inside somebody’s head, which they can now express anonymously. Those responses enable the researcher to identify what the key issues really are.”
In his experience, shy group members often open up after using the handset. “Even though people might have been reluctant to give their view in the first place, when it comes up on screen, most speak up and support their opinion.”
Geoff Bayley, director of RDS Open Mind, thinks concern about peer pressure stems from a misunderstanding of the learning process involved in focus groups.
“The essence of a focus group is to go beyond easily accessible, rational thoughts around the product. It’s the things that occur inadvertently that get people beyond their everyday thinking. They may not have known that they quite felt like that about the brand. We put them in touch with deeper feelings that are real to them.”
Is there a danger of dominant personalities steering a group’s perceptions? Bayley sees the process as similar to a dinner party where the conversation develops its own dynamic.
“Your opinions form through the process of sharing that conversation with other people. One person in a group triggers another person. There are always going to be more dominant personalities and quieter people. You need interpersonal skills to bring out the quieter ones, support people’s minority views and challenge the group prejudices.”
Above all, moderators should guard against pressing respondents for logical explanations, he says. “If you ask people the question why, you either shut them up entirely because they don’t know why and they now have to think about it, or they give you the answer to another question. A focus group is about people ignoring the question and creating a stream of consciousness for the group. It’s not just asking eight people their opinion, it’s much more exploring psychological depths and anthropological meanings.”
Anna Thomas, research manager for Fast Marketing, does not see differences in respondents’ articulation as a problem.
“How can we say responses we haven’t heard are being kept back, or are more insightful than the responses we’ve got? Should we recruit normal people and then worry if they show normal behaviour in front of eight strangers? I think not. In our groups, we don’t see people who are too scared to say that they don’t understand advertising, packaging and promotional literature.
“However, 90 per cent of consumer responses are inhibited because of limited vocabulary and an incapacity to think outside their own experience. You need intelligent moderators, not more anonymity and a slot-in facilitator who will leave them to get on with it.”
A skilled moderator takes an active role in manipulating the group dynamics, says Braier.
“A group has a tendency to move towards agreement. One of the techniques we use is to break the cohesion of the group carefully while maintaining rapport, by pulling out individuals who are dominant.
“If someone says something is true and demands agreement from other participants, your job as a moderator is to say: that’s an interesting view, I wonder what other views there might be? Then you look for the non-verbals that you get, and from whom, in that moment.”
She adds that the moderator should follow up anything that indicates a repressed response.
“You can’t manipulate people’s internal state. If people like something, you can see if they respond emotionally to it. You want the truth, not a manipulated response. I’m not really looking for a verbal response at all. I want to see who is emotionally with me at that time.”
Irving concurs that a high percentage of relevant information from focus groups is non-verbal. For this reason, he favours co-moderation to allow for proper monitoring of the non-verbal track.
“One person is taking the leading role in running the group and their colleague is free to take notes and observe what’s going on.
Where someone is being difficult in the group it helps to dampen down the troublemaker without the person running the group having to be nasty. Also, if you have two people running the group there’s a double record.”
Irving developed the concept of the convergent group, in which two disparate parties meet independently, then join up.
“We developed it for getting young people to talk about how they felt about using condoms. By putting boys and girls together, you would get a silly situation. We ran a group of girls and a group of boys in parallel. Once they were confident and blended socially, we put the groups together with a separate moderator. This way, we got a more adult and mature approach.”
Sean McHugh, a London-based entrepreneur preparing a bid to launch a local radio station, recently moderated two focus groups as part of the market research, separating male and female respondents.
“We felt the women would feel more comfortable if the men weren’t around. Women won’t speak as freely if there are men in the focus group and men tend to dominate and impress their opinions and values on the women.”
The male group represented more of a challenge than the female group, says McHugh. “Men are more group-led. Women weren’t afraid to be individuals. And they would often start a little conversation between themselves. The men seemed to feel: if you don’t like my opinion, then you’re making a criticism of me. If one of them disagreed with a statement, you could see the other man’s attitude was: who does he think he is?
“You had to encourage him to have a different opinion and encourage others to volunteer their opinions because as the moderator I was backing them up. They could see me as the centre of the wheel, bouncing ideas around.”
The process of gathering information should not be too rigid, warns Bayley. “It’s not about rational intelligence, it’s about intuitive and emotional intelligence. You almost need to run a group to encourage inadvertency. If you encourage people to come out with their own anecdotes, to reflect on their own experiences, you begin to reveal the depths of meaning of topics or brands.”
Of course the insights gained from focus groups are flawed, says Thomas, but that is just the point. “We value this form of research because of the unpredictable magic of human interaction. We want Joe Public – inhibitions and all. Of course, if you need totally uninhibited respondents, get a bloody good moderator, do away with viewing facilities and open a bottle.”