Even when I was a lot younger, I often scoffed at the proliferation of research agencies that claimed to have developed a cutting edge new methodology. Maybe it’s my dual background as both marketer and marketing researcher that cast a skeptical eye towards these new product assertions as merely puffery. When I began to build my own firm, one of the strategic foundations was that we would be client focused rather than product focused. Some of that can be traced to my desire to take a customized and consultative approach around vertical industries that remains a tenet of our firm, today. But I’d maintain that this was also grounded in a fundamental belief that I still subscribe to. That belief is that no matter the methodology, good quality marketing research continues to hinge most on one’s ability to ask the right things to the right people in the right way.
And therein lies my belief that the traditional live focus group continues to be a critical and unique tool in the marketing researcher’s methodological bag of tricks. It wasn’t long ago, that Judy Langer, one of the pioneers of the modern focus group, and I conducted research on research among client side research buyers that came to a similar conclusion. Today, as we are confronted with an abundance of behavioral data, tools that allow us to listen to and synthesize digital conversations, and streaming media platforms that can create virtual focus groups, some would argue that the traditional focus group is again headed towards extinction. To the contrary, I’d maintain that they hold an even more important place in this environment than ever before.
To start, I hold such a perspective, because the traditional live focus group gives us the clearest window to the “why” often left unanswered by survey research and some of the behavioral and conversational analytic tools that are now at our disposal. Just as the internet hasn’t eliminated the need for brick and mortar stores, nor has it doomed the trade show industry or in-person meetings, a live focus group provides better opportunity to assess body language, and to build the important face-to-face connection between moderator and respondent that is impossible to replicate despite how clear our streaming video solutions have become. Opportunity to view interaction between respondents, particularly during brief moderator trips to the back room, are an invaluable and standard component in my discussion guides. And the back room in its own right, is impossible to replicate in a virtual environment. At a minimum, one of the key value adds of live focus groups is, as the name implies, it allows all to focus. The respondents are truly who we think they are (with a good screener and rescreener). They aren’t multi-tasking or otherwise distracted as they might be in a virtual environment. And most significantly in a business climate that demands us all to be attention deficit time jugglers, there is nothing that I’ve found to bring greater insight into a client’s business than the post group debrief..often over a beverage of choice, with mobile devices tucked away. On the road, in many a city, these informal gatherings continue to shed great light on a client’s unique challenges and hot buttons that are invaluable to researchers in producing reports that go beyond the data dump that is too prevalent in many deliverables. To take pause to get to know each other is a rare and valuable commodity that enables the best researchers to ascend to that consultative role that truly adds value to any project.
Long live the live focus group!
Jon Last is President of Sports and Leisure Research Group, a full service marketing research consultancy serving the sports, travel and media sectors with consultative custom research. Learn more at www.sportsandleisureresearch.com @Jon_Last