No, Focus Groups Don’t Work

Consider this short dialog:

“We need some information/feedback/insights from our customers.”

“OK, let's run a focus group.”

Focus Groups Are Tempting but Fallacious

Some of my clients have been asking me if they should take their product or service to a focus group in order to obtain feedback, ideas for new features, or some other relevant information. The term “focus group” inspires marketers and entrepreneurs to believe that they will be able to drill down, indeed focus upon whatever information they're looking for. Contrast that with a boring old “survey,” which sounds much more broad-reaching and less like the golden nugget you're hunting for.

This and more make focus groups a tempting tool, but they rarely live up to the hype. You think you're getting one thing, but you're really getting something entirely different.

You Market and Sell to Individuals, Not Groups

Ok, so you've got a product or a service, and you're selling it. I don't care if your business model is B2B or B2C, chances are 110% that you're selling your wares to an individual. If you're B2C, your prospects are regular people that you want to convert into customers. If you're B2B, your prospects are decision makers whom you hope to convert into clients. Either way, you must understand that you're selling to an individual first.

Why does that matter? Because focus groups tend to offer a lot more information about herd mentality and broad market dynamics than they do about individual preferences or valuable product insights.

Need an example? Watch this:

What you see here in just the first 25 seconds is a perfectly well-adjusted adult changing her perfectly rational behavior to match the perfectly irrational behavior of the herd.

This invariably happens in focus groups as well.

What You Really Get From Focus Groups

The camera pans across a long, modern table surrounded by chairs. Some people are sitting in those chairs; others are standing. Everyone is looking up at one guy. He's standing up with close-cropped hair, clean-shaven, and wearing a blue button-down shirt tucked into jeans being held in place by a worn brown belt. He's talking, gesticulating, sometimes pointing at a whiteboard on the wall. He has strong convictions, and with no ill-intention is explaining to the others why his opinion about Product X is correct. Meanwhile, Shy Sally is keeping opinions to herself that both Marketer Micheal and Developer Dagny would find incredibly valuable. Sally sits quietly at a corner of the table, watching the clock on the wall and waiting for the session to end while others engage in rousing debate.

Have you ever been in a focus group where there is one or two (or three) distinct alphas, each debating and espousing their perspective opinions about your product or service? It happens all the time.  When you're lucky enough that this scenario doesn't play out, I have another one for you: You're doing round-robin interviews and someone without particularly strong convictions changes their feedback on your product or service based on those that spoke previously. Sure, you're still getting insight. It's just not honest insight.

I promise you, it happens all the time.

To Sum

Ultimately, our opinions are formulated in complex ways, using conscious and unconscious decision-making. Social cues and pressure to conform play an enormous role in this process whether we like it or not. People's opinions about your product or service will be modified, amended, distorted, and reworked by others in the room, without fail and without exception.

You're selling your wares to individuals, so forget about the focus groups and talk to individuals.

Looking for marketing and strategy insights that customers can't provide? Look no further.

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