Using customer events to conduct focus groups is fraught with problems. Marketers faced with budget constraints come up with very “creative” solutions.” However, behind these solutions, there is often a lack of understanding of how departing from certain methodological rules can bias the results and render the research useless.
This cartoon by Tom Fishburne, makes fun of how often focus groups are used for the wrong purpose. I’d say this also happens when the purpose is unclear. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having clear objectives. We also need to be aware of what focus groups can and cannot accomplish. For more on this, check When Using Focus Groups Makes Sense and Common Mistakes When Doing Focus Groups.
Focus Groups Need A Neutral Space
The article accompanying the cartoon brings also attention to another aspect of focus groups, namely, the focus group setting.
In traditional focus groups, participants are typically brought to a conference room. The goal is to have a focused discussion on a particular issue, free of distractions.
Participants don’t have any choice other than to engage in the discussion driven by the moderator. Focus Groups rooms are a neutral space where participants are expected to be free to express their opinions, good or bad.
In a recent project, Fishburne’s team decided to skip the “drab conference room with a one-way mirror.” They decided to “treat the groups as a VIP event, held in the company’s hip offices at night over drinks.” This is a good approach for a customer relationship campaign, but hardly for research.
Running focus groups at a company’s headquarters is convenient and cheap for the client. However, this puts a lot of pressure on participants who are likely to give socially desirable answers.
Think for a moment: How openly critical are you going to be of the party host when you are treated as a VIP and offered alcohol?
Casual Environments & Scrappy Market Research
The intention of this format was to create a more casual atmosphere implying that a more formal environment would be detrimental.
I’m not against running a discussion in a less formal environment. Some focus group facilities can arrange rooms in different ways to make them look like living rooms, lounges, etc. Still, in these environments, there is a touch of neutrality that fosters free discussions.
Fishburne goes further to say he really likes the “scrappy market research approach” taken by Upwell for a new product called Walhub. This was essentially an informal ethnographic/observational study.
Confusion in Market Research Approaches
Let’s get this clear:
- Customer events to introduce products and gather “casual” feedback belong to the public relations realm. They have a very limited value, if any, as a research tool (unless you are testing how people behave at the event).
- Ethnographic research is not “scrappy market research.” This is an invaluable naturalistic inquiry approach in which the research tries to remain true to the context. A well-designed ethnographic study doesn’t choose its context arbitrarily. I’d argue that a better context to test Walhub’s potential is at consumers’ homes. You may find Walhub to be cool and potentially useful at the store. However, you may soon discover that your habits are not compatible with its use. In addition, your home’s layout may not make it practical to use it.
I agree with Fishburne when he says that focus groups are only one tool in the market research toolkit. There are other ways to gather consumer insights.
Nonetheless, relaxing valuable rules in market research methods and making them a degraded version of the original are NOT “other ways to gather consumer insights.” Use them and expect crappy results.