Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Focus Groups and the Research-Starved Organization

Added on by Tom Webster.

It's no secret that traditional media is in an existential crisis right now, and budgets in print, radio and TV are being slashed through the bone and straight into the marrow. One casualty of this (certainly with print and radio) is the research budget. As someone who does a lot of qualitative research, more and more I am encountering clients who are only able to to qualitative research--and often are only doing one project a year.

I love focus groups. There are detractors out there, but I will only point out that I have been able to give clients insights into why their customers and prospects behave the way they do that would simply not be possible to ascertain via other means, including social media monitoring. At their best, focus groups are part of a coordinated plan that also includes quantitative validation and a mix of monitoring/listening techniques, because no one methodology can do it all.

The problem I have faced recently is "feature creep": when other stakeholders in an organization sniff out the fact that focus groups are being done, everyone sees an opportunity to slip in some questions pertaining to their function or area of interest. Focus groups are awesome for generating ideas on a topic--for going through checklists of questions, not so much. It's hard to fault anyone in an organization for this, especially one that has very few research inputs--when you have no other way to determine awareness for marketing initiative or promotion, it's human nature to want to ask those sorts of questions in focus groups if you are doing them. But focus groups are lousy at the quantitative questions--if you send me in as a moderator with a checklist of questions like "did you get this in the mail" or "have you seen this TV spot" you are not only getting back "numbers" that you can't trust, you are also suffering the opportunity cost of not using that time to pursue other types of exercises that focus groups really shine at.

This generally puts me in the role of triage nurse, and sometimes even bad cop. Often I will sit on a conference call with stakeholders to determine the direction of a study and be placed into the uncomfortable position of telling one or more stakeholders that this isn't the right setting to find out what they need to know, or that we have to restrict the scope of the topic guide. That pains me--especially because I know that some of their questions might just go unanswered forever. It is always a struggle to balance the credo that the "customer is always right" with the fact that sometimes..they aren't. My best clients get that--and appreciate when I set limits or boundaries on a project, because they know that the end results will be richer as a result. Sadly, with research budgets in many traditional media clients getting cut, I'm having to be bad cop more often, which is psychically taxing.

Sometimes I wonder if the bad rap that focus groups sometimes get in the branding community is due more to this--to the fact that their individual projects have been asked to do too much--than to any kind of methodological defect with focus groups themselves. I can't quibble with people who have had bad experiences with focus groups; I'm sure these experiences are real. But, in some cases (especially in research-starved organizations,) it's a poor potter who blames the clay.