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Focus group as fatal error

Focus group as fatal error

No other idea was as harmful to business in general and to advertising in particular, as focus group research proved to be. A huge number of ideas appeared, which were false and obscure for consumers. There were lots of aesthetically and intellectually wonderful creative solutions, starting with packing and ending with advertising prospects, which were talked to death by focus-groups. Nobody, who has ever dealt with focus-groups, likes them. Even those, who earn their living from focus-groups say that «all those amateurs discredit the whole method”. But every focus group research, even if carried out by a conscientious moderator, discredits these tea-parties. It’s becoming more and more clear, that focus groups cannot be used for business and that people must promptly stop carrying out any focus group research if they really want to succeed in business or advertising.

Why focus groups are popular:

The main reasons for this strange love for focus groups are:

  1. The customer may be present at the discussion
  2. The research takes less time than an interview
  3. In a group discussion there are not so many different opinions (so it is easier to present the research to the customer).
  4. Depending on how you moderate, you can achieve any results, so that the customer is pleased.

To conscientious researchers points 3 and 4 should appear repellent enough to quit carrying out any focus group research. But the harsh business laws and the understandable wish to earn money set their own rules.

Where do originate from

Focus groups originate in marketing, particularly in propaganda and psychotherapy. None of the origins has much to do with business or advertising, because propaganda is characterized by a non-competitive communication, and psychotherapy is an absolute personal and very intense conversation, where there are no alternative opinions or when the influence of those opinions is insignificant.

Propaganda came into play when the study «Focused Interviews” by R. Merton, M. Fiske and P. Kendalla appeared (1956 in English and 1991 in Russian). There’s no doubt, that the book is very interesting from the professional point of view. It is based on the authors’ work on some propagandistic materials during the Second World War. In this book, the term focused interviews was firstly introduced and the technique was described. But the authors didn’t say, whether the method could be used in business. Besides, they considered group interviews as a particular case.

Psychotherapy became important by mere chance. Psychotherapeutic treatment in groups has a long history, starting from group hypnosis in the end of the 19th century. But in the 1950s and 60s the scientific society focused its attention on Karl Rodgers’ «humanistic psychology”. Karl Rodgers didn’t carry out any sociological research, but during the diagnostics he used the collocation undirected interview, and the main technique of that kind of interview was group treatment.

The terms groups and focused interviews, which belong to completely different scientific fields, were put together in such a strange way. So the practice of focus groups was born. During the first three decades focus groups played quite an insignificant role. Then by mere chance again they turned out to be effective for several business projects and became famous. But we’ll never know, how many other projects were killed by focus groups. Finally, the 80s saw a real focus group boom, not only because the method was very informative, but much more because different marginal groups became more and more popular, not least by imposing themselves it focus groups on manufacturers and demanding special advertising campaigns. In the previous decades these marginal groups were busy solving their problems with the help of group psychotherapy, without terrorizing the society. All the «essential conclusions”, drawn in such groups, were often quoted in public disputes, and so they attracted the attention of the marketing managers.

Finally, the recent 20 years have seen a huge focus group overkill in marketing on all stages of decision-making and that is probably one of the main reasons why advertising got much less effective during this period of time.

Why group discussions are much worse than individual interviews.

It’s quite natural, that group treatment is relatively more effective than individual treatment in psychotherapy. But as for marketing, group discussions are much less informative than individual interviews. First of all, there’s a dramatic difference between group psychotherapy and focus groups, and there are many criteria for this in addition to what we see (a group of people gathering together in the same place).


Group psychotherapy

Focus group


The participants confess, that they have some problems

Being owner of a commodity is much more a personal achievement than a problem

Urgency of the issue

The problem being discussed is very urgent and extremely important for the participants

Most consumers think, that being owner of a commodity is just another event in the everyday life and they hardly spent more than five minutes on thinking about the commodity, before they participate in a focus group.


The participant pays for being part of the group.

The participant is paid for being part of the group.

The doctors / the moderators role

The doctor is the true leader, he has a lot of power over the participants, he can, and sometimes he even must use it.

The moderator mustn’t use any power in order to preserve the atmosphere of a spontaneous discussion.

How the group dynamics is used.

The group dynamics, and aggressiveness as well, are used medicinally

The group dynamics is suppressed to avoid open conflict among the members of the group.

Norm of behavior

Tolerance towards other participants, active position. Members try not to express any evaluative opinions.

Focus groups are usually considered as a forum, where different positions and views are presented and were people are invited to express evaluative opinions;

In fact, each statement makes the discussion less spontaneous.


The objective is to summon a forum, where all members are tolerant towards each other, and to correct the behavioral forms and stereotypes

The objective is to find different views on the same thing.


Up to several years, depending on the group dynamics

One meeting


There is no follow-up of the whole group. Depends on the personal state of the patients (clients).

The researchers organize representative polls to see, whether some statements are still popular.

Communication value

The group is meant to find out, what stereotypes and forms of interpersonal communication participants use in everyday life

Byers never discuss their choice with others

It is also worth mentioning that even if individual focused interviews take place, the researchers set very strict rules. According to Merton and Co, the respondent must have participated in some situation: he must have watched a film, listened to a radio program, read a pamphlet, article or book, taken part in a psychological test or an event, which can’t be controlled, but is watched (a political meeting, ceremonial or riot). That is, a focused interview itself has sense only if the respondent is takes part in the situation that is analyzed. But in real life this rule does not apply to the most purchasing and consuming situations: 90% of those, who go to supermarkets, chose only one item on the counter and spend no more than 12 seconds on thinking what to buy, 42% of the buyers need only 5 seconds to make their choice (Dickson P.R., 1990).

So you shouldn’t expect buyers to have some very intimate thoughts about what they buy and make them speak about it for some hours. If you want to know their opinion, you can just ask them several clear questions during a short individual interview. So you can cope with the main problem of focus groups: in an individual interview there is no pressure coming from the moderator and other participants. It is well known, that up to 80% of the people are inclined to fall under the group pressure and the less important the issue is, the more ready they are to give in.

Where focus groups are useful

Focus groups are useful when it’s all about getting preliminary information or setting up a research hypothesis concerning a trend or phenomenon. The hypothesis itself must be tested on representative polls. Focus groups may also be helpful while checking, whether some arguments are cogent in terms of personal sales or corporate and political PR, i.e. interpersonal communication and creation of comprehensive texts or discourses.

But as for objects of mass communication like packing, advertising materials or corporate work-place design, none of them can be tested on focus groups, even with the purpose of getting preliminary information. The opinions expressed in focus groups can not be used as guidelines while making management decisions, whether some creative solutions should be applied or not.

Why focus groups are useful only in these few cases? This is, what the following chapters deal with.

The main problem of focus groups: moderator’s influence

The main problem of focus groups is not that sometimes respondents sabotage the meetings or unwillingly tell lies. In fact the problem is the unlimited influence of the moderator. Moderators don’t deny this influence, but they say, it is well studied and can always be taken into account while summoning focus groups or analyzing the results (Chantre, http://www.sostav.ru Focus groups: effective or delirious).

As a matter of fact, the research on this influence had the following results: the influence can’t be changed or predicted for any situations, it cannot be measured and nobody can know for sure, whether an opinion is personal or imposed by the moderator or some other leader. Moderators don’t let the discussion go its own way and, doing this, they put an end to a free exchange of opinions. That is, any focus groups distort personal opinions to a greater or lesser extent.

Finally we face a dilemma. We need personal interviews to find out in how far the initial opinions of each participant were distorted. But we don’t need any focus groups to back the opinions expressed during personal interviews. Focus groups don’t say anything new to us, so they are useless.

Emotional violence in focus groups

When focus groups are discussed it is often said, that in an individual interview, for example, when advertising concepts are tested, respondents can «miss something”, but in focus groups you can explain it to them. We face two problems here: the validity of the results of such an «explanation” and the «explanation” itself.

The first problem can be solved quite easy: advertising concepts, that have to be explained to respondents, should never be used. If the people don’t understand something after a moderated contact with an advertisement (no matter, whether in a group or individually), he won’t be able to understand anything in the real life when many commercials are broadcasted one after another, and all the research expenditures will finally turn out to be useless.

The problem of all the various explanations is much more a problem of emotional violence over the focus group members. They are complete strangers to each other and would never have discussed the suggested issues in any other situation. Usually people do not discuss marketing issues in detail, as it is done in focus groups, and some or even all participants are often totally confused by the moderator’s questions and explanations, especially when they are straight away invited to express their opinions. Besides, those discussions break one of the rules of everyday conversation, namely «don’t say the same thing repeatedly”, because most of the opinions repeat those, which were expressed before (in such cases moderators usually appeal to the participants, saying «any other opinions?”).

There’s no doubt, that these situations, which are most typical for focus groups, are just different kinds of emotional violence on the respondents, compensated with money, coffee brakes and so on. In these discussions, the participants’ opinions and evaluations get biased and distorted. In such way the results may be easily faked and adopted to the customers’ needs.

Although the supporters of focus groups claim, that moderators and group discussions themselves are meant to invite people to give spontaneous answers, these claims contradict any research on group dynamics and group decision-making: it is known, that after a preliminary contact with the advertising materials most of the participants think more about how to preserve unanimity, than about the essence of the issues being discussed.

Another result of the focus group violence is the overdiagnosis of unimportant parameters and factors of the consumers’ behavior. Respondents are forced to give an answer and have to say something, but the meaning of what they say in such a situation is insignificant.

Motivation diagnosis on focus groups: apologists’ fetish

Another issue, which is worth mentioning, is the fetish of «consumer motivation” and the statement, that the consumer motivation can be diagnosed. When this issue is discussed, there is such a jumble of different opinions, that it is impossible to figure it out.

First, it is known, that most purchases are not motivated, or at least the term «motivation” has a meaning, which is completely different to what psychologists used to think. Psychologists think, that motivation is a number of aims, reasons and actions, but most consumers do not demonstrate any motivation at all, that is, they usually buy without any special purposes. The research «Consumer’s decision — fact or fantasy?” by R.Olshansky and D.Granbois, which was published in 1979, showed, that most everyday purchases are made without any search for information or alternative choice, they are all results of behavioral stereotypes, which are emotionally neutral (together with purposefulness, emotionality must also be there in a motivated action).

Second, most of consumers’ decisions are results of external factors (location the service centers, distribution range, packing), which are not controllable and the buyers are unaware of them. So it has no sense to asked about them in focus groups, because they do not depend on the buyers awareness and if the respondent is forced to give an answer, he’ll have to invent something.

Third, even if we agree, that consumer decisions are motivated, there is still a problem, because one motive can cause many different styles of behavior and one style of behavior can be caused by many different motives. Usually it is the latter case: the consumers’ choice can be determined by diverse reasons (but people, who chose one brand have the same image of it, which is mainly characterized by the consuming qualities of the goods). Besides, if you want your advertising campaign to be effective, you shouldn’t find out the motives, but first of all the way of behavior, which is most typical for potential consumers, because depending on by what motives the consumer is guided, he can react differently on the situation presented in an advertisement, but to advertisers it is important that the reaction is positive.

Fourth, it’s a bit strange, when motives are presented in public: it’s hardly possible, that anybody of sound mind would unveil his true motives to strangers. At best the respondent will make a self-presentation, which is at least interesting to look at. But people are most likely to give some stereotype answers or to echo the moderator’s words.

It would be a rather big technological mistake to apply any projective methods on focus groups: all projective methods were designed basing on some theoretical views on human nature. That is, if the projective method is basing on the assumption, that the man is an aggressive being, the diagnosis will therefore be focused on aggressiveness or non-aggressiveness, but it is never discussed, whether assumptions like that are true or false.

Finally, we have to confess, that the motive diagnosis is only what the moderators speculate with, and one has to use other methods to find out the consumers’ motivation.

Focus group tests burying creative ideas

Designers and advertisers face a very special problem of focus group tests. I must say on beforehand, that using the term tests, I mean only the procedures that allow to evaluate the reaction to the test units (packing, advertising materials etc.), which are used in marketing activities. The researches that are carried out to solve this kind of tasks are supposed to bring a stable result that can be measured and reproduced.

By definition focus groups do not correspond to this criteria. Article 25 of Reasons To Use A Professional Qualitative Researcher, QRCA, reads «if a simple, straightforward, consistent answer emerges in a focus group study, that answer is often incomplete, or it is the response to the wrong questions”. Russian authors are even more straightforward «The results, brought by qualitative research can not be verified by quantitative research. But it is often not necessary”. (Melnikowa, Focus groups in marketing research).

The use of focus groups in any tests is a misuse of this method, it doesn’t even correspond to the criteria of the method itself.

In practice focus groups can’t support any creative solutions, which differ from what is commonly accepted, but demonstrate a good communicative effectiveness during experimental tests and the following use.

Focus groups bury creative solutions, because respondents are forced to motivate their choice. But as for new solutions, focus group participants usually have nothing to say about them, because in real life they never think about why they choose certain things, they just take the items from the counter, which they find attractive, without discussing it with anybody. And out of the 50000 advertisements, daily broadcasted on Russian TV, they «pick out” the ones, they «merely” like.

It is reasonable to test packings and static advertising materials (for press and street advertising) on tachytoscopes or using various experimental researches, including perception mapping and q-sorting. It is also possible to use perception maps and experimental researches like real time responds to test dynamic advertising materials.

Focus groups as a fatal mistake of business

Decisions, which are based on opinions expressed in focus groups, can be deadly for any business. They may be opinions on goods and services, which were not tested on representative polls, or ineffective communicative materials, which were discussed in focus groups, but not experimentally tested. But there are many research methods, which allow to solve the very same problems without distorting the consumers’ behavior, like focus groups do.