Ask me no questions

Sam P on focus groups
Samuel Pollen
by Samuel Pollen

Six people walk into a room. You invite them to sit down, offer them tea and coffee and biscuits. You show them your lovely new brand identity, and ask what they think.

Everyone stares at their mugs.

Paul, who’s going through a divorce, says, “Hmmm.”

There’s a long pause. Eventually, Rhonda pipes up. “I like the colours.”

Tom, who fancies Rhonda, says, “Yes, me too.”

Rhonda smiles shyly.

Sally reaches for a biscuit. Mark reaches for a biscuit, too.

Lisa is about to say she likes the name. But before she can, Paul cuts in.

“I don’t like the name very much. It’s childish. Don’t you think?” He looks around expectantly.

Everyone’s a bit scared of Paul. They all nod. Paul gives a self-satisfied smile.

You write down, Group 2 don’t like the name. Then you ask, “What do you think of the layout?”

No one’s really got an opinion on the layout. The layout, frankly, is so-so. Unremarkable. But Rhonda abhors a vacuum. After a long pause, she says, “I like the layout.’

Tom says, “I like the layout, too.”

You write down, Group 2 like the layout.

Your feedback is important to us

Focus groups are quite a new thing. Before the 1950s, no one put much thought into whether a product would sell. They just tried to sell it. If it sold well, they made more. If it didn’t, they didn’t.

There are advantages to this approach. As Henry Ford (who, we should never forget, was a horrible racist) didn't put it: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

But if you’re spending a lot of money developing a new product, it’s nice to know people are going to buy it. Hence, the focus group – an innovation credited to sociologist Robert Merton (endearingly, he called it ‘the focused interview’).

Merton’s idea was simple. Ask a few people pointed questions about an ad, or a politician. Note down their responses. Go back to your boss and tell them the good (or bad) news.

The idea spread quickly. Businessmen loved the notion that they could get the inside track on what their consumers were thinking.

The only problem? They couldn’t.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Even before Merton gave the world the focus group, there was a lot of psychological evidence to suggest it wouldn’t work.

Take conformity, for instance. In a series of experiments, Solomon Asch showed that people will lie in order to fit in.

Or take the primacy effect. If you present someone with a list of information, they remember the first couple of items better than the later ones. If you then ask them which item they like best, guess which they’re more likely to mention?

There’s the name–letter effect, where people prefer words starting with the first letter of their name, and the Pygmalion effect, where respondents end up conforming to expectations.

In most situations, these effects are small. But they can add up.

There are other issues, too. In the example above, there are six people in Group 2. The chances of them being a representative sample of the public are slim. But it’s worse than that. Two people – Paul and Rhonda – end up speaking for the whole group. If you’re not careful, you could end up making a major business decision based on the whims of two people.

Finally, it’s worth remembering what Mr Ford didn't say. Throughout history, new and exciting ideas have had a frosty reception. Do you want to create a faster horse, or a car?

Stay focused

That’s not to say focus groups are useless. You just have to use them in the right way.

Use them to throw up new ideas, or potential pitfalls. Things you haven’t seen because you’re too close. Maybe your new logo looks a lot like another, famous logo. Maybe your new name is easy to mispronounce.

But don’t treat what the focus group says as gospel. Don’t use it to make quantitative judgements. Remember your groupees (sidenote: don’t call them your ‘groupees’) are human beings, in a human situation. They do not possess the judgement of Solomon.

And whatever you do, don’t listen to Paul. He’s been through a lot lately.

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