As technology grows and new and different research techniques come into the marketplace, our research tool box is becoming more diverse.  But even with all the diversity of tools the 2016 GRIT report shows that focus groups are, by far, the qualitative data collection method clients and supplier go to most.

But why is that?  There are all these great new techniques and shiny new tools that should knock focus groups off their pedestal.  Shouldn’t on-line, which has virtually changed the quantitative landscape, do the same to focus groups?  How can something that came in favor around World War II still be popular, vital and a foundation research tool?  What’s up with this?

In a nut shell, it is people talking to people.  With all of our advancements in technology, there is a real emotional and psychological need for us, humans, to watch and listen to the simple art of conversation.  It seems that nothing can replace this very intimate and compelling form of research. The reason is simple, when done right, focus groups provide a unique window into how others perceive the world and each other.  Focus groups should not be used to assess behavior; there are other tools for that.  They are uniquely able to capture top of mind reactions to ideas and concepts that can’t be achieved elsewhere.

Additionally, only focus groups provide the subtle nuances that can be seen and acted on in an in-person setting.  A facial expression, a move of the body, a glance are all aspects of body language that can be caught and dug into. For example, ‘Bob, it looks like you’re thinking something … what’s on your mind,’ ‘Jane, why did you make that face … what’s up?’  There are a number of ways to call out non-verbal behavior on the spot to dig deeper into the subject matter.  Focus Groups are also unique in reading the ‘energy’ in the room when stimulus are shown.  Both moderator and client can ‘feel’ if a concept, advertisement, etc… is good or bad even before they start to talk about it.  It is that energy that can be achieved nowhere else but in focus groups.

Lastly, they allow for exploration of alternate ideas, perspectives and opinions that can provide real insight into a lifestyle, category or brand.  Again, when done well, a lively discussion and free thinking can, with the right moderator, explore and uncover new, uncharted territories that may not have been planned but yield rich learning.  Because of the free flow of information and ideas, these unplanned excursions are unique to focus groups.

While a number of researchers claim that focus groups are not useful or are waning in popularity, it is simply untrue.  Yes, there are other tools that can provide qualitative learning and can do it faster and more efficiently … they certainly have their place.  However, nothing can replace the physical and emotional act of having a simple conversation about a topic that is common to all in the room.  The need to ‘feel’ a participant’s emotion will always be essential in the quest for an emotional connection with consumers.

Brian Fletcher is the VP of Qualitative Research at Insights in Marketing, where he uses his outgoing nature and love of junk food to make research participants feel right at home. Check out some of his top tips for leading qualitative research.

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