When the field of market research comes up, a common image that materializes in the mind is that of the traditional focus group: padded chairs clustered around a gray table set with uniform place settings of pens and paper, a white board easel off to the side, and a large two-way mirror leering omnisciently from the back. If you were to question the ability of such an environment to produce authentic and honest insight, you would not be alone.

Neil Stevenson lays out the case against continued use of this methodology, starting with its history and ending with one proposed replacement. Stevenson’s point is that the focus group either needs to be reinvented or left in the past. Initially ran by skilled psychologists contracted out by large companies, the insights produced from these focus groups were fairly large leaps based on emotional conversations that aimed to understand respondents at a deep level. Companies trusted these insights and built marketing and advertising campaigns around the interpretation of the psychologist.

Today, the format is much different and the types of questions asked in focus group tend to be direct, non-emotion driven (e.g. which design do you prefer?), with the hopes of eliciting verbatim quotes that can be used as evidence to prove the direction down which a company should go. However, this type of questioning can commonly lead respondents to either say what they think the moderator wants to hear, say something just to respond, or say something influenced by the group around them. If one person in the group is particularly vocal, it is not uncommon to have the rest of the group swayed along.

As a company, we at REAL Insight align with Stevenson’s argument against focus groups. Our advocacy has always fallen on the side of in context research due to its ability to elicit more honest and authentic feedback. Innovation options we bring to the table include our Brewed Insight sessions and REAL Immersion journeys. We have also created a design thinking team focused on growing and adapting our current methodologies. Innovation is a necessary component to successful research. As the history of the focus group shows, no methodology is guaranteed to remain relevant forever. REAL Insight knows this and makes a point to keep our methods current and relevant through innovation and adaptation. Focus groups are a comfort level for some companies, and stepping outside of that comfort zone can be daunting and nerve wracking, but general wisdom also says that’s where the magic happens. Or in this case, that’s where authentic, actionable insights can grow and flourish.

-Jennifer Carrasco, Associate Project Director

About the Author REAL Insight

With over 25 years of experience, REAL Insight has led projects across a variety of industries that successfully identified consumer behavior and expectations in context, helping our clients make better decisions.

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