Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not dead yet: towards the reinvention of the focus group

I’ve been hearing about the death of focus groups for about as long as I’ve been in this business, which is now over a decade, and yet they keep happening, which makes you wonder: can they really be as stupid and pointless as all their detractors claim?

Well, sure. Sometimes they are just that stupid and pointless but as more measured observers have pointed out, they have their place, so long as you understand that place and their limits as research tools. I’ve written about them before myself here, comparing them to the usefulness of using water to put out fires. There might be better ways to put out fires, but water works pretty well and there are quite a few handy fireplugs around so we might as use them.

But this is a pretty weak defense when the truth is I often get quite a bit out of qual research. Though I should add that I've generally had a different take on focus groups than most people I’ve met in the industry. In general, I’m not that interested in whether consumers “like” something or not. It’s always seemed to me that the only reactions that mattered were strong reactions, and that a strong negative was probably more useful and informative than a weak positive. This a fact that Sacha Baron Cohen understands intuitively and uses to great comic effect in Bruno. Few reactions are as powerful or revealing as disgust.

I certainly don’t think of qual as evaluative in the marketing research sense of the term. In fact, I generally don’t care what consumers think coming into the groups. My standard line in the past has been I don’t care what consumers think so much as what I can make them believe. Am I leading the consumers? Yes, I am. The question is: are they following? If I can’t get them to follow me in the room they certainly aren’t going to follow any marcom object they encounter in their daily lives.

But this was always an exaggerated claim of the kind I’m prone to. I do care what consumers say or at least how they say it. I don’t care if they “like” a particular idea or expression but I do care a lot about the particular language they use to describe their reaction. The form and content of these reactions is far more revealing than any of their claims about whether they like something or whether they will buy it. Unlike these claims--which are of dubious accuracy--the way consumers express themselves reveal how they think through consumer decisions and the cultural touchpoints they use to support their own opinions. These are almost impossible to fake, even if consumers had any motivation to make them up. Plus the lanaguage often makes for great creative source material.

It wasn’t until I started working at Amalgamated that I joined up with a group of strategists and creatives that really embraced this point of view and had developed a methodology that made use of these seemingly irrelevant details that most researchers edit out of reports or consider merely directional, when in fact they are the most meaningful and useful content in the research.

And yet, I still didn't fully understand or could really explain everything I was trying to do in focus groups until recently, when, with the help of some of my former colleagues in academia, I was led to the work of a neo-Freudian analyst named Christopher Bollas who has detailed a revolutionary way of thinking about the old idea of free association, which I’ll post about next.