Ethnography beats focus groups hands-down, but they still serve a purpose

Focus groups are a bone of contention, as a Twitter debate featuring Professor Byron Sharp this week showed, but while they are flawed, they are still a quick and cheap route to useful insights.

It was one of those little moments on Twitter that makes you glad to be a user. A noted marketer produces an apparently innocuous tweet. Another noted marketer smashes it to pieces. And, before you can reach for the eating popcorn GIF, marketer number one is back and packing the heavy artillery. Others join in. The temperature rises and it’s on.

So it was at the start of this week, when CMO Everard Hunder took to Twitter to profess his love for the good old fashioned focus group. Hunder waxed lyrical about the “free flowing conversations”, “changes of conversational direction” and “unscripted questions” that all generate marketing gold. Why are they so out of fashion wondered Hunder when “no other method creates these moments”?

Not a minute had passed before Doug “Atomic Ad Man” Garnett entered the ring to profess his admiration for Hunder and his own similar-sized passion for focus groups. Hunder’s comments were “incredibly true”, tweeted Garnett, who went on to postulate that focus groups were out of favour because companies misunderstood their role in exploring rather than testing for the truth.

Suddenly there was a disturbance in The Force. If you listened carefully the sound of Wagner and the insidious beating of large drums grew louder. The Dark Lord of Penetration, Professor Byron Sharp, had been summoned from the depths and, as usual, he was in no mood for platitudes.

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“Do in-depth interviews instead,” he boomed. “Get out of your offices and go into shops/homes.” And, almost as soon as he had emerged, he was gone again, save for a giant ripple across the dark water and a sudden blast of cold wind.

It was Garnett who responded first. You imagined several people gripping his arm and saying: “Doug, for fucks sake, leave it, LEAVE IT!” But he was back at his keyboard contradicting the Dark Lord directly.

“There are many ways to explore. It all depends on the situation,” Garnett responded. “Groups offer a psychological advantage helping uncover that which they wouldn’t discover individually – in shops and homes.”

It was at this point, mid-way through a fine cup of coffee, I paused my typing to focus exclusively on Twitter. “Hmm,” I pronounced to no one in particular, “it’s game-the-fuck-on here.” I swivelled back on my chair and, taking my phone in both hands, waited for the next installment from the Depths. I was not to be disappointed.

“???” Professor Sharp replied. “In a group you get a few minutes’ talk per person cf. hours in-home. It’s an artificial environment. And weird sample… Ignoring these biases reminds me of how people like astrology, i.e. cos it feels good/right/insightful.”

It is almost always more useful to engage with the customer in their own environment.

Those familiar with the various ancient books of the Dark Lord will know that shibboleth-tossing is one of his most effective techniques. Opponents are reduced to leech users, flat-earthers and witches to make the point: that there is ‘science’ and then there are a bunch of other medieval paths that all lead to horseshitville.

Even by the Dark Lord’s standards he had started tossing early, however. The online debate was barely 20 minutes old and he was already whipping out the zodiac critique.

“Hang on Prof,” replied Everard. “I’m not suggesting you then go forth from focus group chit chat and do stuff; there is clearly a validation stage. But for fresh ideas, draft insights and a wealth of other business information I think they have a really useful place.”

The debate continued for a while. Garnett became upset with the Dark Lord, who, he claimed, appeared happy to accuse him of “medieval medicine” without knowing what he did for a living. Sharp apologised (not really) and suggested his comments were “mild” by his standards (not exaggerating here) and also “factual”. There was, he concluded sternly, “no cause for offence”.

His two opponents disagreed and continued to throw spears at the Dark Lord for quite some time until Sharp, once again, seemed to grow bored and slipped back into the depths. If you want the whole discussion – which remained civil to the bitter end – it’s all here.

The value of focus groups

So who is right and who is wrong? It’s traditional in these kinds of situations to try to find a way to make everybody look stupid and find a third superior vantage point from which you can emerge triumphant. Disappointingly in this case, however, everybody in the three-way debate was on the money.

Hunder is correct that focus groups can be gold. They are much abused in modern marketing settings but they are a method that has several significant advantages.

First, they are fast and cheap. I can hear the Dark Lord already muttering from below, but it can takes less than 48 hours to arrange for six or seven target customers to troop in behind a one-way glass and dispense their point of view, and the value of these sessions can be stupendous.

Personally, I like to avoid moderators and do the sessions myself. That sparks a chorus of “that will bias the group” comments from people who have never been to a focus group and don’t understand the epistemological differences between qual and quant.

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Try biasing a focus group and twisting what they say – it never ends well. In truth, personal moderation enables you to mainline the insights and move much faster with the consumers. And anyone filtering the insights from consumers to marketer is a barrier in my book.

I also prefer focus groups mid-way through the marketing process, not at the start. I use other qual methods for initial discovery and then feed those insights into proper quant. But once segmentation has been done, positioning completed and some draft tactical ideas are on the whiteboard, it is time to call the focus group facility.

Being able to recruit two or three groups from a specific target segment at this stage is invaluable. You can check your portrait, explore what the drivers are, check the value of the positioning, and get some soft but useful feedback on the tactics being proposed from those that will soon be targeted with them. I know of no more valuable 80 minutes in the marketing year.

But before we turn this into (another) anti-Sharp session, his central contention about groups is also valid. They work best as a quick, high-volume approach to insight. It is almost always more useful to engage with the customer in their own environment where the buying, consuming and disposing of the product is actually done.

Focus groups have their place and aren’t as astrologically bad as Sharp suggests.

After all, if the point of research is for the marketer to understand the consumer, why are we asking them to come to us? As the great marketer and CEO AG Lafley used to say to all his new Procter & Gamble marketers, if you want to study a lion don’t go to the zoo, head off to the jungle.

I’m biased, of course, I did my marketing PhD using ethnography. Influenced by Holbrook, Hirschman, Sherry and a posse of sexy American marketing gurus who straddled the 80s like rock gods, there was only one method for me when my data collection year began.

I worked as a teaching volunteer in five large comprehensive schools to study not how advertising used kids, but how kids used advertising in their daily lives at school. A juicy publication and some 15 years later, I then supervised my own doctoral student, Laknath Jayasinghe, as he watched people watching TV ads (they knew he was there) for his own PhD.

Ethnography can be a precious profession. Anthropologists espouse a lot of complex bollocks about emic and etic perspectives and the Lebenswelt. In truth, and in accordance with Sharp’s comment, it mostly just means get your ass out the office and hang out with consumers.

It takes a bit of time; you need a ‘back-stage pass’ and people are often freaked out at first. But the insightful ends justify the labour-intensive means and it almost never fails to change your approach.

And for B2B customers who can’t or won’t come into the office and hang out with other customers (try doing a focus group with rival surgeons) it’s the best approach of all. You make an appointment, you visit them, ask dumb questions, beg them to explain how things really work and – three hours later – you realise almost everything they think back at head office is not just incorrect, it’s completely nonsense.

So I think everyone in this Twitter discussion has a point this week. Ethnography, the use of observation and in-situ long interviews are an amazing approach for all marketers. But I also think focus groups have their place and aren’t as astrologically bad as Sharp suggests.

Mind you, I’m a Sagittarius and you know how we feel about conflict.

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