Exploring New Paths to Great Creative Strategies Part 2: Beyond The Focus Group

Drawing nuggets of truth from shrouded mystery has been one of the most passionate pursuits of the human race since ancient times. In the Hebrew book of Proverbs it’s written: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search a matter out.”

As marketers, it’s easy to fall into the cynicism that we are the prophets of consumerism (oh no!), and overlook the opportunity we have to search out truth and bring meaning to the relationship between brands and people.

In this second post on new paths to creative strategy (1st here), we're examining the role of qualitative research in marketing. In challenging the qualitative research status quo, we hope to become more skilled at approaching truth and creating value with our clients.

Unfortunately, qualitative research today is practically synonymous with focus groups.

There have been two core factors critical in the development of using focus groups for research:

  1. Focus groups are perceived to yield the same types of findings as other forms of research.
  2. Focus groups are cheaper than many other methods, and feel more official (read: objective) than others.

Crushing the status quo comes down to two things as well, then:


  1. Learn which methods are suited for the types of findings desired.
  2. Value perspective over objectivity (because the latter is impossible).

Focus groups are overly prevalent largely because they are misunderstood. Anyone with common sense can guess that the nature of findings differ from one methodology to the next, but because these differences are rarely articulated, they are assumed to be of minimal importance.

The truth is, different methods yield significantly different types of findings. Qualitative practitioners too often fail or don't try to educate clients on these differences. The result is that the focus group has become a budget-friendly-fit-all representative of qualitative research.

Wendy Gordon, author of the fantastic book Good Thinking: A Guide to Qualitative Research, writes:

"It is therefore incumbent upon users of qualitative research to find out which suppliers have the resources, expertise and experience to provide mixed methodology solutions to contemporary problems. Many researchers argue for conventional groups because this is more profitable and easier, not because it is right - a sad observation."

Easier? True. But more profitable sounds like an agency issue, not a client one. If the benefits of other types of research are properly detailed, they should be able to be sold in the same fashion at similar margins, even if the overall cost is higher. With that in mind, let's articulate some of the reasons you might need to move beyond the focus group:

  • If you want a detailed reconstruction of the purchase process
  • If you want to know how people behave in a store
  • If you want to know how people behave at home
  • If you suspect the topic is too sensitive for people to feel comfortable discussing in a group
  • If you want a history of pain points throughout the life-cycle of product ownership

When in a group, most people find it uncomfortable to carry on about their history with a product or brand, and it wastes the time of the other participants. People also forget what it was like to open a package a year ago, visit the store, or how they use something on a daily basis. It becomes habit and goes to the brain's back shelf. Additionally, it's tough to get people to open up in honest fashion on sensitive topics like abortion, gender issues, religious issues, sexual issues, personal hygiene habits, etc.

This doesn't mean focus groups don't work. On the flip side, here are some things focus groups are great for:

  • Getting a quick pulse on the culture of the group.
    • Identifying common enemies of the group (e.g. parents feeling the media corrupts their children).
    • Identifying common aspirations of the group.
    • Identify things the group doesn't care about.
    • Identifying points of conflict where the group disagrees.
  • Listening for group lingo and jargon (great for refining a survey questionnaire).

The key then is to approach each methodology this way. In-depth interviews, surveys, phone interviews, online chat rooms like GutCheck, at home tools like Qualvu, accompanied shopping or take-home projects for participants all have valid strengths and weaknesses. Because none of them yield the absolute truth - just an angle on the topic at hand - it's a great idea to leverage multiple methodologies and get as many angles as possible, just like reading multiple sources of a story.

This is why objectivity - which tends to be connoted with official or formal methods - isn't possible. It's an important point to remember when considering the value of doing some quick phone calls with existing customers or putting up the several thousand for booking a facility and recruiting some respondents (a.k.a "people").

The moral of the story: Use focus groups when they're appropriate, but check your toolbag before deciding what works best. Even on a tight budget, there are sometimes options more appropriate for the task at hand.


Written by Chris Allison on May 24, 2012


Add A Comment

Thanks for the interesting read about focus groups. I actually didn't know that focus groups could be cheaper than a lot of other methods. I'm kind of interested to learn what these other methods could be and when they would be beneficial to use in your research.

It's generally fantastic to read such a thoroughly considered and intriguing article. Much obliged concerning imparting this to us. It's superb to realize that there is dependably incredible stuff to read here.

Taylor, you're absolutely right. It's scary how the focus group has become the emblem of qualitative, when in fact it's one of many tools that can be great - as you mentioned - when combined with others. In the same book mentioned in the post, Wendy Gordon points out that even how other techniques are described, as "alternative", points to the view many people have of them.

Taylor says:

Frankly, it's scary that we're still trying to educate people on the power of qualitative research methods outside of the focus group. So much amazing work has and is being done with in-context and projective techniques, among others. Interestingly, I'm actually seeing focus groups return to favor a bit - not as they once were - but when combined with other methods to take advantage of the benefits focus groups do have.

Written by
Chris Allison