The Strange Survival of the Focus Group
The Economist ran an article a few weeks ago from which I have borrowed the title of this post. It puzzles over British politicians railing against focus groups for message testing and trying to understand voter sentiment, while continuing to rely on them as heavily as ever. “In an era when voters are monitored, tracked and polled more than ever, [focus groups] may seem anachronistic,” the author writes. “Yet they thrive.”
It was not long ago that I, too, wondered whether focus groups would survive. It seemed that new technologies, and the rise of social media in particular, might put practitioners of qualitative market research out of business. With easy access to so many people in far flung places (videos, texting, group chats) and so much qualitative data at the ready (people obsessively documenting the most boring details of their lives) who would need focus groups any more?
But sure enough, focus groups are thriving. The Economist suggests it’s because quantitative surveys tell us what people think, whereas focus groups tell us why. That is not quite true. Surveys can and do answer “why” questions. And focus groups hardly probe the depths of human motivation.
Instead, I think focus groups continue to thrive for two reasons.
First, focus groups can operate in relatively unexplored and unstructured human contexts. Good moderators are experts in how humans think, talk, behave, and justify behaviors in their every day lives, no matter what the area of inquiry. With specific goals in mind, a good moderator can shape discussions and interactions and ask just the right questions to uncover new data quickly and with tightly focused relevance. Surveys and polling data, and all our fancy new data technologies, simply cannot do this. They do not probe and discover; they document and measure.
Second, focus groups thrive because they offer insights that are impossible without human intervention. The magic of a focus group comes not from the communication itself or from the volume and richness of qualitative data that is generated—both of which are easy to transform (or replace) with new technologies. Magic happens because smart and experienced researchers interpret communications and data. They make sense of it all. They generate insights, which machines or technologies simply cannot do.
Given the experience (and insight!) I have today, which I did not have ten years ago, the survival of focus groups seems not strange to me at all. What does strike me as strange is the belief among some people that the next big thing – big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing … whatever it is – can somehow replace humans who create those big things and insights in the first place.
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