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Marketing Feature - Focusing on the Benefits - Sharpening the Focus of Focus Groups

Focus groups can run aground for many reasons, yielding information that's of little use to your business. Here's how to overcome the built-in limitations of focus groups and glean the facts you need, according to Kirsten Sandberg in the Harvard Management Communication Letter. The bottom line: Focus groups are most meaningful when they help you design and interpret research that uses other methods.

When the economy droops, managers use every affordable tool to assess business risks and opportunities. The focus group is a favorite option. It's cheap, quick, and easy—all you need is a moderator, eight bodies, a topic, and a two-way mirror. Not surprisingly, managers tend to use the focus group indiscriminately—and ineffectively—for almost every company problem. The bottom line? Focus groups have potentially enormous value, but not the way most companies use them. The following is a guide to avoiding that trap.

"The focus group enables a small number of people to work together to solve a specific type of problem. It is one of the most misused techniques because it is easy to execute when done incorrectly," says Rajiv Grover, holder of the Terry Chair of Marketing at the University of Georgia in Athens. "It provides a natural setting for studying all kinds of human biases," but not for much else, according to Gerald Zaltman, Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Why? Because "95% of human cognition is unconscious. The 5% of cognition that is conscious is not necessarily verbal," says Zaltman. "People cannot readily explain their thoughts, actions, and emotions in words, especially in a group setting." What a person says at any given moment reveals a small fraction of what's actually going on inside that person's head. Procter & Gamble, for instance, dispatched a packaging team to watch a consumer do her laundry at home. When asked whether she had problems doing laundry, she said no. But they observed as she used a screwdriver to open a new box of detergent and poked a stick into the wash so that the powder dissolved. When asked about these actions, she replied, "I didn't think about them."

Relying solely on focus groups for in-depth analysis is risky, not just because they only get "top of mind" reactions but because they offer no competitive advantage. Consequently, savvy firms like P&G and General Motors are moving away from the traditional focus group. Jenny Craig used a certified hypnotist as a moderator to age-regress focus group members back to their earliest childhood memories of being overweight. The results yielded more effective advertising and product information. Dr. Jeff Hartley, a cognitive psychologist who is a research manager at GM, favors behavioral measures like a person's physical reaction time to sights and sounds over attitudinal measures such as verbal responses to open-ended questions.

You want group work, not groupthink.
— Rajiv Grover, University of Georgia

Moreover, focus groups are incapable of drawing conclusions about any given population, even though managers use them for such purposes all the time. "Politicians, for example, substitute focus groups for really knowing their constituency," says Dr. Robert C. Bogdan, chair of the Social Science Program at Syracuse University's Maxwell School in Syracuse, N.Y. The trouble here, he says, "is that they capture only a moment in time, not how customers really organize their lives." Focus groups provide a single data point, not a statistically valid estimate from a random sample of the target audience. They represent the one or two people who seem to dominate the group. For these reasons, says Grover, they are "for learning and understanding needs, not for building consensus and selling solutions."

Given those limitations, companies can use focus groups effectively in two different ways:

1. To design other types of research. Focus groups can isolate issues that a survey could later quantify. For example, before Coca-Cola launched its ill-fated New Coke, a focus group revealed that customers might react very negatively to a change in the soft drink's formula. If secrecy weren't at stake, then a national probability survey could have followed to assess risks and reveal how important this issue was relative to other issues. Use focus groups not to validate hunches, but to guide the validation process.

2. To interpret the results of other research. GM's Hartley regularly compiles quantitative ratings for new automobile designs by surveying roughly forty people in the target demographic. He follows up with a focus group of three people to understand, for example, why all respondents gravitated toward automobile design A instead of design B. Use focus groups not to draw conclusions, but to understand the conclusions drawn.

That said, several factors are critical to a focus group's success:

Synergy and serendipity. Each person must build upon, rather than agree with or reiterate, what others have said, according to Grover. "You want group work, not groupthink." You also want surprises, and so the discussion should allow for spontaneity within the stated rules of order. P&G, for example, asked consumers to try packs of Febreze, a fabric refresher. After a trial period, P&G asked several consumers to discuss their experience with the product. One person used it in tennis shoes, another on the family pet's bedding. Before long, they were playing off one another's ideas to come up with all-new uses for Febreze.

The moderator must make the room a comfortable place for everyone to participate, according to Barbara Lindsey, director of P&G's Consumer Research Services Group. Recruit people who are equally assertive and whose appearance doesn't communicate occupational or social standing that would intimidate another participant, as a police uniform or a diamond tiara might. Screen for "focus groupies," those people who participate so regularly in research studies that they're too polished to engage in the group process fully.

Small size. Until recently, focus groups tended to involve as many as twelve people because it was thought that more people meant less dead air, fewer awkward silences, and a greater number of ideas. Recent research suggests that the opposite is true.

  • Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Liverpool (U.K.), found that when a group exceeds four participants, it splits, probably because not everyone can hear everything the others say.
  • Abbie Griffin, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and John R. Hauser, Kirin Professor of Marketing at MIT's Sloan School of Management (Cambridge, Massachusetts), say that one-on-one interviews are more efficient at assessing customer needs than focus groups. Twenty one-hour interviews, they found, generate the same number of insights and new ideas as ten two-hour focus groups—and cost much less.
  • Regarding depth, Hauser adds, "If you have two hours to cover five to ten topics with eight people, then you have about one or two minutes on each topic with each person. You can't possibly get much beyond the surface given those constraints." With fewer people, you can drill down into what surprises you.

If you've lost touch with your constituents, don't mistake any amount of market research for a real relationship. Focus groups are no substitute for getting to know your customers. "Talk to customers," advises Hauser. "You'd be surprised by how much you can learn from a modest number of well-designed conversations. Talking to just ten or twenty customers is often sufficient." So what are you waiting for?

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Reprinted with permission from "Focus on the Benefits," Harvard Management Communication Letter, Vol. 5, No. 4, April 2002

See the latest issue of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

Related stories in HBS Working Knowledge:
The Mind of the Market: Extending the Frontiers of Marketing Thought

The Consumer Anthropologist

The Manager's Guide to Communicating with Customers Collection

Kirsten Sandberg is the executive editor of HBS Press. She can be reached at ksandberg@hbsp.harvard.edu.

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