How to Get More Accurate Data from Focus Groups

The best way to understand a focus group is to know what they did, rather than what they think.
The best way to understand a focus group is to know what they did, rather than what they think.

We often engage consumers to answer some of our business questions through consumer surveys or focus groups.  However, how accurate can the data be?  Are the respondents giving projections on what they will like to be, vs. what they are?  Will they be influenced by group think from other members of the group?  Or will they be nice and say nice things about your brands even when they don’t feel so?

Understanding the mind is certainly a big hurdle.  Relying on what consumers say means you have to trust them a lot, and hopefully their answers really reflect the real reasons and motivations behind their decisions.

I found that the best way to get more accurate data from focus groups is to observe their actions.  Very seldom do they try to hide what they have done.  They may mask the reasons and motivations, but they will often tell the truth about what they have done.

Find out what they do, and under what circumstances did they make the decision.  Get them to do the act itself, e.g. observe them buying the product from the supermarket, and using the product in their daily lives.  Understand their daily surroundings, and the environment they are exposed to most of the time.  It’s true that sometimes consumers don’t really understand the true reason they do something, as it’s in the subconscious mind or habit.  Through their actions, you can observe and deduce for them their real motivations for buying certain products.



Associate a Strong Feeling to your Brand

Can increased heartbeat from a Shaky Bridge be good for your brand?
Can increased heartbeat from a Shaky Bridge be good for your brand?

Excitement can add liking to your brand.  So how can you generate more excitement and liking for your brand?  Let’s start with a little background study first.

An experiment was done on two groups of people.  For the first group, the participants had to cross a normal, stable bridge to get to the other side.  At the other side of the bridge is a decent looking female researcher who gives out her phone number freely to all participants.  Similarly, the second group is made to go through a bridge also, but this time, the bridge is a shaky, rickety one.

So what were the results?  The second group had far more participants who called the lady after crossing the bridge.  The guys mistook the excitement they had in crossing the bridge to liking the girl.  Their heartbeat increased when they saw the girl, so that mistakenly implied that they must have liked the girl then.  This caused a lot of them to call the girl up after the experiment.

When the car Scion was launched in America, they invited young people to a cool concert with famous pop singers.  The excitement they had at the concert was passed on to the car brand, and a lot of them ended up liking the car after the event.  Something you can do for your brand too?

Going to Extremes

Do they all think alike?

I just finised reading a book by Cass Sunstein, called ‘Going to Extremes’.  This book gave a whole new meaning to the concept ‘wisdom of the crowds’.

It is said that large groups can often guess pretty accurately say the number of marbles in a glass jar.  This is provided that each member exercises his or her utmost objective and independent wise judgments.  If the person comes in biased and opinionated, and many others in the group are biased in the same way, then the sum total mentality will be ‘going to extremes’.

Terrorists that harm others regardless of moral standards and disagreement with the outside world is one such example.  They group together with a collective mentality of terror, and each member of the group reinforces others, giving courage to go forward and commits acts of violence.

Beware of group think, and how it differs from wisdom of independent, objective minded individuals in a group.  Kennedy’s disaster in the Bay of Pigs disaster shows how everybody has gone to the extreme, with no alternative opinions among them.  So the next time you seek opinions, make sure you look for others who do not think just like you.

The New and Better Way to Understand Consumers

Give me the key to your unconscious mind

We have all done our fair amounts of focus groups, quantitative surveys and 1-to-1 interviews with consumers.  Have we ever doubted if the data we got is accurate?  Even if it is, how accurate?  100%, 75%, 50% or 20%?  We frankly don’t know, do we?

The only real accurate way to understand how a consumer behaves is to observe him in as ‘normal’ a condition as possible.  Like what Malcolm Gladwell said in his book ‘What the Dog Saw’, the only accurate way to know if a football quarterback is good, is to let see him perform as a football quarterback, with as real teammates as possible.  I.e. less simulation and imagination, more action, reality and observations.

Consumers use more of their unconscious mind to purchase something.  When you ask them why they do so, they will try to justify to you so, even if the reason is not the actual one.  People buy stuffs that are top ranked in Amazon and consumer reports.  So in focus groups, consumers will look to others for suggestions on their answers.  Moderators may sway decisions, and consumers may not tell the truth.

Observe them in as ‘real’ an environment as possible, and as covert as possible on your intentions.  It sounds hard, but the truth is often hard to get.  Use the internet to get people’s real feelings and reasons for buying something.  Observations and sales data are more important than what the consumers tell you.

Even for new products, small scale live tests in say a town will give you far more accurate data and feedback vs. focus groups.

Are Teenagers Nowadays Less Creative?

Creative bulb burning less bright for teenagers nowadays?

Apparently yes.  According to Lego, they have to come up with less bricks to make their structures so that kids can actually complete them, and not get impatient or bored.  Video games have dominated the toy category now, and this gives teenagers better reflexes, better visual capabilities, and the ability to understand lots of ‘knowledge’ quickly.  However, as most video games are choice or linear oriented, kids do not have much room to exercise their raw creativity.

Understanding Tweens Age 9-14

Ooh, I got that new coolest handphone that my friends like!

Tweens are younger teens.  They range from age 9 to 14.  This period is crucial, as you really get your intelligence or IQ score fixed at about age 9 to 10.  Then you are hit with puberty, and all that bodily changes and hormones can really wreck tweens with an identity crisis and the hots for the opposite gender.

Tweens think that the best brands are those that their close friends are in favor of.  Enough people like the brand, but not too many.  If too many likes it, it becomes ‘normal’, and no longer special.  The brand must not be silly or boring.  Popularity is what they crave to be, or what they crave in others.

Tweens generally like sports, movies, computers/internet, shopping, music and partying.  Some communication vehicles that marketers use to target them are love, stability, humor, fear, fantasy and mystery.  Stability in this case refers to feeling safe and secure in this fast changing world, and sometimes getting more dangerous.  The others are self explanatory.

Most of their money is spent on going out, music, computer games, clothes, games and grooming products.  They watch TV, read magazines and newspapers, but often research products with friends and parents, as well as in the store or through the web.

With such strong peer pressures, target your brands at ‘cool’ opinion leaders.  Be seen as understanding or helping them, such as providing seed money for small businesses.  Be at their favorite sports events like skateboarding, basketball and soccer matches.  Sponsor the hip musical concert.  Let your brand rub off some of that glamour from their favorite opinion leader.

Understanding Culture for Better Marketing

I just finished reading the book ‘The Culture Code’ by Clotaire Rapaille. A very interesting look at how our subconscious and social programming determine how we perceive things and events in life, and how whole cultures are shaped by these perceptions.

According to Clotaire, emotions are key to learning, and the keys to imprinting interpretations into our minds. We may not notice it, but a lot of our interpretations were shaped when we were young, on how our parents perceive certain matters, and how the society you live in shape your social programming.

In focus groups, there have been much controversy on whether consumers are really speaking the real truth, or do they answer based on what is expected of them. Do they even know why they like or dislike certain things and can articulate their opinions accurately?

According to the book, it’s not the content of what respondents say, it’s the relationship between respondents and the products. What role does the products play in their lives, and what is the relationship between the users and the products? How do the products make them feel, and how do the products affect their sense of identity?

Here are some findings that the author has discovered in the country of America. He found that sex = violence, health = movement/activities, doctors = hero, nurses = mothers, youth = mask (such as with lifting, botox, and anti-aging creams), money = proof of winning, shopping = reconnecting with life (material and social aspects), luxury = military stripes = money.

One brand that has made use of this finding is Pantene. As Pantene’s brand equity is ‘Giving You Healthy Hair’, it always depicts moving hair to denote hair health and wellness.

Downfall of Focus Groups?

Many authors have predicted the death of focus group in favour of something better, one to one interviews. I have done both extensively before, and there’s no wrong or right. But I personally prefer the focus group method. Here’s why.

It saves me time. I do research, brand management, advertising and many other business stuffs that occupy my day. Do I have time to do six sessions of one to one interviews? No. I prefer a session of focus group with 6 people.

Focus group is deem to have ‘group’ behaviour. One or two will influence the rest. Some will be inhibited. Some will be loud and dominating. Some will follow others’ opinion for fear of being ostracized. True, but only to a certain extent.

This same group dynamics can do lots of good as well. The social interaction can bring on deeper insights when one comment is built on another. Sometimes the focus group can run by itself through the interaction between the members.

Group dynamics can bring on high energy. This makes people feel safe to share more on their deeper thoughts and wants.

Go Deeper in Market Research

When you are moderating a focus group, the most important thing you can do is to eliminate any tension or anxiety in the group. They may be strangers to each other, and this will affect how much they share. Use humour to break the tension, and cheer them up.

Don’t let the focus group process be boring. Try varieties of techniques. Use pictures from magazines. Use word associations or metaphors to bring out deeper feelings and thoughts from the respondents.

Conduct the focus group in a relaxing environment, like a nice cafe for afternoon tea. Consumers are aware of those one way mirrors in those FBI focus group rooms, and know that they are being watched. How will that make them feel? Uncomfortable? Tense?

This deep research data can be used to create better creative briefs. The ultimate result is a good value proposition to entice the consumers to buy a certain product or service. This proposition should be like a powerful headline for a print article.

Also craft your research to the objectives of your advertising. Know the reason why you advertise. To sell? Yes, but be more specific. Are you asking for more trial from new users, or more consumption from existing users? To persuade them to visit your store? To be the top 3 brands of choice in the category?

Research data

I have always loved lists. The top 10 songs, the top 3 mp3 players, the top brands in washing machines, and the top box office movies. This is the social pressure influence. This takes thinking away from me. If others like the movie or music, it must be good. The scary thing is, even if it is not that good after all, will I claim that it is good because so many others think so?

This applies to advertising and consumer research as well. They are not perfect. They may not be telling the whole truth, or may be expressing what they will like to do or be instead of what they are doing currently. Research is good. But take it with a pinch of salt. Balance it with common sense and personal opinions.