Focus groups

The myth

Focus groups will magically reveal deep insights with the right moderator and ‘anyone’, with reasonable social skills, can moderate.

The second myth is:

Focus groups are scientific: that the moderator is a ‘blank canvas’ who doesn’t impose their views, so the results are unbiased. 

This isn’t the case.  Focus groups are a core part of research.  

There’s no doubt about that.

But there are three things that really need to be dealt to get the most out of this method.


    The truth

    The first thing is that we have to remember is that a focus group is an artificial social situation.

    Now why does that matter?

    In the real world, people form their attitudes and opinions around their peers, not a group of strangers.

    And people in focus groups are talking about things they normally don’t think about for a long time. (Unless they are evangelists for a category – say a coffee fan.)

    This can mean people tell you things that aren’t true, due to the environment.

    The way to tackle this is to balance ‘stranger groups’ with friendship groups where natural social dynamics are in play.

    The second thing you need to do is to find out if your category is best analysed via psychology (largely individual) or social psychology.

    What do we mean by this?

    A car brand is a way to communicate with a wider audience, a brand of kitchen towel is not.

    So you must choose the mode of analysis that reflects the category, and which is proven.

    The third thing is that analysis using ‘pop psychology’, or instinct, does not allow you to get the most of what’s being said.  You must choose a formal proven analytical model that fits. 

      3 step process

      1. Reflect on the balance of using focus groups with ‘friendship groups’, especially where the category is about communicating identity.

      2. Ensure that you are using analytical models that are rooted in the science of behaviour, and are proven, or the results become the subject of an argument about pop psychology and opinion.

      3. Wherever possible, use another means of enquiry to cross-reference focus groups.  This could be semiotics or ethnography, but two lenses give a better chance of finding the truth, and three are even better.