Variety is the lifeblood of consumer research

Today’s marketers seem all too ready to resort to focus groups, to the exclusion of other rich sources of insight into consumer behaviour.

As time goes by and my nasal hair proliferates, the more disenchanted I become with the way in which marketers are using focus groups.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the concept of focus groups as such. My concern is that they have become like sex in a jaded marriage an empty ritual that delivers little satisfaction and yet precludes any more exciting alternatives.

It was different in the golden age of qualitative research, when pioneers like Ernest Dichter first used focus groups to probe the collective psyche of housewives in the 1950s.

On one notable occasion (so the legend goes) Dichter advised Betty Crocker that mothers felt guilty about only adding water to cake mixes. Mixing in an egg created a sense of maternal engagement. Sales rocketed when the instructions on the pack were changed.

As a junior planner, I was brought up on stories like this, told by acolytes of the late, great Stanley Pollitt (one of the original partners at BMP and, with Stephen King at JWT, a progenitor of the planning discipline in the UK).

One of Pollitt’s precepts was that planners should moderate their own groups. I try to do this as often as time permits. So much so that sitting behind the glass and watching someone else run a group is frustrating. Probing for insights via an intermediary feels like trying to repair a watch while wearing oven gloves.

However, every now and again, I take a back seat and watch one of the master moderators (for there are quite a few) at work. It’s not only instructive, but also a little humbling.

To begin with, their questioning is relentlessly “projective”. Like the man who walks into a branch of Boots and asks for a tube of antibiotic ointment for “a friend”, respondents are often more comfortable, and thus more honest, when projecting their attitudes onto others. Great researchers know this, and so they avoid direct solicitation of respondents’ opinions.

They are also aware that variety is the spice of life. Having a diverse menu of techniques helps to keep things fresh, for clients and respondents alike.

For example, reconvened groups can deliver fascinating insights, especially when respondents are given an exercise to complete between sessions, such as recording their interactions with the category, or even trying to do without the product for a week.

Doing it in an unfamiliar place can pay dividends, too. By the time Shakespeare was packing them in at the Globe, theatre had moved on from the classical “unities” of time, place and character. But focus groups remain locked in an arcane theatrical convention the suburban front room, the eight seats in a circle, the lady in the kitchen with the envelopes of cash and the cups of weak Gold Blend.

A different but relevant setting the cafe of a department store, a car showroom, a restaurant table can provide useful stimulus, helping to open minds and loosen tongues.

However, there’s a bigger question that I think needs addressing. For too many marketers, “research” is increasingly becoming synonymous with “focus groups”. As a result, they are missing out on the rich insights that can be delivered through other forms of consumer exploration.

Observation is a simple yet much under-appreciated technique. I was especially struck the other week by the Marks & Spencer study that challenged shoppers to fill a basket with a list of products in one of their stores. According to reports, few could find more than ten of the listed items inside an hour, a finding that is leading to a wholesale overhaul of store layout.

In the online domain, social listening is observational research on speed with the added benefit that it helps identify patterns and networks of influence.

However, there’s a persistent voice at the back of my head reminding me that, for every ten people engaged in an online conversation, there are probably a few hundred only half-listening, and a few hundred thousand unaware that the conversation is happening in the first place. Social listening is useful. But a direct analogue of real life it is not.

While on the subject of persistent voices, it is a truth universally acknowledged that planners will always have methodological concerns over quantitative pre-testing techniques. Can they ever measure low-involvement responses? Aren’t they by definition overly rational?

Coming from the behaviourist school of hard knocks that is the world of direct response, I have to say that quantitative pre-testing of the kind offered by experts such as fast.MAP can be phenomenally useful.

Yet, all too often, marketers resort to focus groups to resolve delightfully binary questions such as “which of these singularly left-brain propositions will elicit the highest volume of response from my audience?” It’s ironic that, just as online methodologies have brought the real cost of quantitative pre-testing down to an all-time low, a generation of marketers has arisen who just don’t consider it.

If qualitative research is over-used as a means of predicting behaviour, then it is equally under-used as a means of explaining it. The development of transactional databases mean that it is possible to identify different patterns of product use and the responses to individual communications. Yet, only rarely do I come across marketers using qualitative recontact studies to probe the motives for purchase or, even more importantly, the motivations behind non-purchase.

Just to reiterate, this isn’t a rant against focus groups, or those of us who run them, but a plea to use them much more wisely, and to design them a lot better.

Even if you only like to watch.

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