The group effect

Vincent Nolan, founder, 2CV, says that focus groups don’t deserve their bad press.

Vincent Nolan
Vincent Nolan

If you believe that actions speak louder than words, then the rise of the use of focus groups over the last 30 years suggests that qualitative groups in all their forms provide a panacea for smart marketing decisions. This is a controversial opinion, even within the research industry. But marketers using qualitative groups should look beyond the naysayers.

Leaving aside the fact of the exponential growth of consumer groups around the world in one form or another, their usefulness is being underpinned by current thinking. Our overriding human pack behaviour (popularised by Mark Earls in his book Herd among others) suggests that people find it hard to make proper judgement calls in isolation – especially where those decisions, like brand choice, will end up being made public at some level.

Our overriding desire to conform has also been demonstrated by social psychologists since the 1950s and it is one of the main lubricants of mass adoption, fashions and tipping points, which are vital for successful marketing.

Every experienced researcher will tell you about moments where ideas have caused a frisson in the room – something that struggles to get through the mirror, I’m afraid, for both of you who experience groups in this way. It’s more than non-verbal – it’s a buzz, it’s visceral – an idea has excited the group, one way or the other.

The way the new thought is dealt with is typically pack-like. Notice the speed with which the idea is adopted by the more forward in the group, built on by the more contemplative and endorsed by the virtually silent. The focus group is as close as we can get to observing how ideas and thoughts are likely to be adopted in reality, which is very handy if that is what you are trying to achieve. Interestingly, this ‘group effect’ is something moderators of old were trained to, well, moderate. Yet it is probably one of their most insightful moments to observe.

Groups aren’t right for everything, I admit. Their role in understanding the context of people’s lives through reported behaviour is their great weakness. If you want to understand people’s context and how they actually behave on a day-to-day basis (which I’d urge you all to do before embarking on any innovations or ad development projects), it’s best to use observational techniques, ethnography or auto ethnography.

This avoids the pitfalls of self-reporting in the company of others, which all too often shows a reflection of how we want to be perceived in a social context, rather than the reality of our lives. So, if context is what you are after, use some form of ethnographic process to provide a proper understanding of how the land lies and find a way of integrating that understanding into your idea-generation process.

Managed and facilitated in a creative way, a diverse group will cross fertilise ideas and come to a new place altogether. For the innovation or co-creation group stage, choose your groups and process carefully. If you are looking for a creative spark or new idea, a diverse range of participants are generally productive. This is not to say consumers can ‘do the creative’s job’; instead, well-run workshop sessions can generate creative possibilities that weren’t there before.

To understand how your new ideas will be received by the herd, select a group of like-minded individuals and see whether they reject, embrace or ignore them – the latter being the final death knell to any idea. Does this sound familiar? Yes, it’s the traditional focus group. But when you want to assess how new ideas and products will go down with the real herd, carefully managed groups may well help with the answers.

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