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Should We Stop Conducting Focus Groups?

In an ever-expanding digital age for consumers, does it make sense to bring a dozen people into a room for two hours so they can provide their opinions on a product, brand or service?

If you’ve ever attended a focus group, you’ve probably seen discussions that are mostly surface level and feel inauthentic to the customer experience. The moderator might run through a checklist of questions with more emphasis on validating assumptions than on searching for greater customer truth.

There might be one person in the room who dominates the conversation, drowning out feedback from other participants. Meanwhile, client attention in the backroom, behind the one-way mirror, fades in and out as messages and emails pop up on their phones. No one seems engaged. At the end of the session, it doesn’t feel as if much was gleaned.

Wouldn’t companies be better suited scrapping the focus group and investing those same resources digitally? Instead of forcing consumers out of their natural environments, wouldn’t a digital approach to research, which enables customers to provide feedback at a time and place that are convenient for them, be more effective? And there are other in-person ways to get the desired research.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Almost 11 years ago, I started working at Omega Group, a market research firm ultimately acquired by Bravo Group. The company had a research offering called CoConnex. I inquisitively asked, “What’s a CoConnex?” I was informed that it’s Omega’s version of a focus group. I quickly found out it’s something better experienced than explained.

When I attended a CoConnex session, I saw two moderators conducting it. The dialogue they facilitated with participants felt conversational and natural in tone. They listened intently, clarified thoughts and avoided asking leading questions. They explored the clues and ideas offered by the group. The participants became emotional at times. I had attended focus groups before. This didn’t seem at all like a focus group.

Most bizarrely, the client was ushered out from behind the glass and seated directly at the table with participants. This must be biasing the group, I assumed. Instead, I saw participants who were forthright and candid with their feedback to the client. There was a clear connection with clients and customers. CoConnex, I learned, was all about creating a “collaborative connection” with your customers.

Years later, traditional focus groups continue to be a staple in research, but not for the right reasons. We need to demand more from our focus groups.

Compared to digital research, the advantage of bringing a group together face to face in a CoConnex is the ability to dive deep and reveal emotional drivers of behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong advocate of digital research. It’s fast, effective and far more efficient to reach audiences over a broad area. For all its benefits, though, it lacks the emotional aspect of in-person research. Even with video and emoticons, there’s something unique about a shared in-person experience that cannot be replicated easily online.

So back to my original question: Does the focus group have a place in today’s digital world?

If you’re still conducting traditional focus groups, you should stop now. Your resources would be far more effective spent elsewhere (whether it’s on CoConnex, digital or something else).

However, picking the right research approach doesn’t need to be a mutually exclusive decision. In-person research can inform digital research and vice versa. Approaches can often be conducted in tandem. The key is that it’s most important for companies to be clear on an objective — what is it that you want to accomplish? Once you establish that, let your research partners recommend the best way to get there.

Evan Grove is Bravo Group's Research Director leading qualitative research initiatives and assisting clients in market research, brand positioning and strategy development. Evan delivers solid results for clients with a keen sense for engaging customers and bringing forth new insights.