Testing reality of focus groups

Having used focus groups extensively to build knowledge of the over-50s market, I concur with Debbie Carne (Letters, MW July 21) when she says they should not be treated as a universal research medium. But her belief that experienced moderators can discriminate between what people say in a forum and what they actually do is misleadingly dangerous.

We have found numerous occasions when older groups say one thing, yet do another. In focus groups, mature consumers are frequently passionately aggressive towards particular types of communication. It would take a moderator with superhuman powers to deduce that the cynicism expressed did not translate into reality. Focus groups often mean what they say even if actions belie it.

For instance, focus groups of older demographics will say they will not be bribed to make purchases through promotions. Premiums are frequently referred to as “trinkets”. But reality is very different. Small premiums with perceived high value work very well with the over-50s.

However, a moderator would never be able to deduce this. It means that focus groups can be very useful for understanding consumer attitudes, but should never be used as a guide to behaviour. Nothing said in them can ever be trusted and must be thoroughly tested in other ways.

In the case of the over-50s market, this is doubly important because older demographics consider themselves marketing-aware and often

analyse the communication as well as the brand proposition. Added to the fact that most marketers have minimal knowledge of the sector, this means campaign testing is as important as consumer research.

Martin Smith

Managing director

Millennium

Shipley, West Yorkshire

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