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Why Focus Groups Don’t Work

Focus groups have been used to test concepts for everything from political campaigns to the latest Hollywood movie idea. But often, too much clout is given to the information gathered in these focus groups. The fact of the matter is that focus groups really don’t work as they’re supposed to. Why? The answer is simple—there’s a large gap between what people say in a focus group and what they actually do in real life.

Usually focus groups fail to read the true “pulse” of the consumer. Human beings are complex individuals with various and conflicting motivations. The way focus groups are set up, people often feel as if they need to impress someone – either themselves or the other people in the room.

In the book, How Customers Think, author and Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman reveals that over 80 percent of new products and services, when tested through focus groups, fail within six months. That’s a big number to explain away. Case in point: TV shows and movies are often screened by focus groups as a first step in the selling process. Once the movie or show is given a stamp of approval from a series of focus groups, it then moves on to production. How many “blockbuster” movies and TV shows have you seen flop once they release to the general public? Many, if not most… which means the focus groups were dead wrong to begin with.

People participate in focus groups for a wide variety of reasons. Some sign up just to have something to do. Others come for the money and couldn’t care less about market research or expressing their opinions. They just want to collect their paycheck and leave. Others are flattered that someone cares about their opinion. And others participate in focus groups as a social outlet or use it as an opportunity to “get on their soapbox” and vent to someone.

People don’t tell the truth in focus groups

Many focus group participants lie, either intentionally or unintentionally. Usually it’s the latter. They have a hard time communicating or articulating their true feelings, and their responses come out vague, jumbled up, or just plain wrong. Vague responses lead the moderator to draw his or her own conclusions, which usually fall on the side of the product or service. Furthermore, people will lie about why they do things (often to themselves) and will make up reasons to justify their actions. Sometimes people tell “polite” lies, telling people what they think they want to hear.

There’s cultural pressure to be a “good” citizen, which often translates into being a politically correct robot. In focus groups, participants may unconsciously try to protect or build up their own image, instead of telling the absolute truth. They may give a politically correct answer, especially when they’re put in front of their peers. Most people will agree with others to avoid standing out or being different. Often, the absolute truth resides so deep within the unconscious thoughts of a person, that they’re not even fully aware of them. In a ten-minute focus group interview, these feelings stay hidden deep down and rarely make it to the surface.

Last, but not least, focus groups are almost always conducted in a completely unnatural format: bunches of strangers are thrown together in a room to talk about something that may or may not be familiar to them. Add to that the fact that focus groups are usually quick, one-time, think-fast experiences that require people to make judgments “on the spot.” This can only add to the level of confusion a participant may feel. Think about it – would you tell a group of complete strangers your deepest feelings? Most likely you would not.

Why field testing is always best

A database solutions company used six different focus groups to evaluate two different creative concepts for an upcoming direct mailer. One concept was based on humor; the other was direct and to the point.

All six different focus groups liked the humorous piece best. Despite those conclusions, the marketing company knew testing was the only way to be sure, so they tested both versions. The results were the exact opposite of what the focus groups had concluded. The humorous version was beaten by the straightforward version by over 60%.

What’s the answer for marketers?

The bottom line is this: the only thing that will tell you what people will really spend their money on is what people really spend their money on. Direct marketers aren’t concerned with branding or image; they are only concerned with what sells. Direct marketers achieve such stellar success by following a simple practice: conduct small tests, see what response you get, and adjust marketing tactics accordingly.

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