Rethinking Focus Group Methodology

Trying to keep up with branding and marketing literature is a major challenge. New texts seem to be published weekly. Now there’s a whole new category of literature that uses advances in brain science research to help us explain how consumers respond to advertising. Among other things, this research indicates that the confidence marketers have traditionally placed in focus group methodology has been based on a number false assumptions including the following: 1. Consumers think in well-reason, linear ways to evaluate products and services; 2. Consumers can reasonably explain their emotions, feeling, preferences and behaviors – and translate them into words; and 3. Consumers’ memories are accurate reflections of their experience.

According to Gerald Zaltman, in his book How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, the reality for consumers is really quite different. We live in a world where emotions and desires play a larger role than logical decision-making. As consumers, much of our thinking takes place on a subconscious level, making it difficult for focus group participants to explain their behaviors. And our memories of what led us to make specific choices are far from perfect.

A great place to learn more about current thinking on the limits of traditional focus groups and some reliable methods for tapping into consumer insights is Zaltman’s book. This is not to say that focus group research is dead, but rather that the methods used within focus groups need to be reconsidered in light of this information.

If done thoughtfully, focus groups should give us insights into consumers’ motivations and values. Ultimately, we want the marketing that we produce to engage the consumer by explaining how the product or service fits within his or her life. To do that, you have to develop a deeper understanding of his or her life and values. Consider using focus group methodologies where the moderator engages the group in exercises that allow the participants to express themselves emotionally and creatively. Exercises such as collage building, brand personification, brand association and adjective pairing all take consumers out of the role of “reporters” and free them to be themselves, perhaps even tapping into some of those values and cultural elements that impact their decision-making.

You might even consider taking the focus group out of the formal focus group room and holding it as a cook-out in someone’s backyard or in the form of a cocktail party. Getting the participants to relax and forget themselves is one of the keys to tapping into meaningful insights that can guide your marketing.

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