Friday, October 25, 2013

Focus Groups: In the Search of Cultural Meaning

I have conducted about 5,000 qualitative sessions during my career in market research.  Most of these sessions have been focus groups and a substantive number have been ethnographies. In our 2012 book "Hispanic Marketing: Connecting with the New Latino Consumer" (Routledge) we discuss focus groups with Latinos in much detail and clarify many common concerns marketers have in conducting them. In this opportunity I am reflecting on the focus group as one of the most misunderstood versions of qualitative research. Here I intend to talk about the essence of focus groups and how to make them work for cultural marketing.

A focus group is not a question and answer session.  For that you can simply interview people individually in person, online, or on the phone.  The focus group is a focused discussion to understand how people think and feel about ideas.  It is an opportunity for understanding how meaning is created collectively during human interaction.  

This type of interaction has great value because it reveals cultural meanings that are not obvious and cannot be asked directly. One cannot expect people to tell you why they prefer a product or idea just by asking a direct question because the context of the situation is not a realistic consumer behavior opportunity. But asking the group to discuss brand "X" is likely to reveal inner feelings, attitudes, and values. Thus, focus groups are not for finding out why people use a particular brand on an individual basis but to find out how the group talks about a brand.

But a key aspect of moderating a focus group is that the moderator must be a pretty silent person in the process.  One asks "please talk about brand X" and then one stops talking.  Silence produces discussion. One can also say, "interesting...  I would like to understand better how you feel... please tell me more about brand X," and again remain silent and nodding.  The richness of meaning derived from such an activity cannot be underestimated. 

I understand that many research departments and clients are likely to be anxious about spending money without having a long questionnaire as a discussion guide for the focus groups, but that is because many do not understand what focus groups are for.  They are for generating group discussion. If discussion and symbolic interaction is not the goal, then simply do individual interviews and save some money.

Besides brands there are many other aspects around which a focus group can be centered.  For example, a discussion on the importance of one's health.  As respondents discuss the issue, the observers and moderator infer the meaning of health and capture important insights that can be used to market products and services. Generally these are likely to be culturally laden insights that can be used for brand positioning purposes. 

Actually, on many occasions focusing on an aspect related to the brand as opposed to the brand itself can  be richer in delivering cultural insights. Thus discussing health can be richer than discussing "HMO plan X." This is because properties of the brand are more relevant to consumers and they can more readily engage in a meaningful discussion. The aim of the focus group is to uncover the meaning of health, in this instance.

There are those who hold stereotypes about focus groups because of their personal experiences. A poorly trained moderator can readily damage a focus group by not knowing how to establish a warm and comfortable personal relationship with respondents. A lot of the chemistry of focus groups has to do with the warm-up and the bonding phase.

Another myth is that focus groups do not tell the truth because one individual biases the others.  Clearly, this has to do with respondent selection, the establishment of focus group procedures, and group process management.  But most importantly, when one expects a focus group to answer a barrage of questions, one is bound to have more social influence of one respondent over the others because the focus group is being rushed and not carefully prompted to engage in concentrating on an issue. 

Further, social influence is part of social life and a discussion will reveal patterns of interaction that can be very valuable in suggesting marketing approaches. One way of getting group participants to focus before coming in contact with each other is to give them the assignment to do something about the issue they will focus on. That preempts much of the concern about social influence as people have been focusing on the issue.

I will write more about focus groups and other research approaches.  Here my main aim is to clarify that focus groups are for discussion focused on an issue or set of issues, they are not question and answer sessions. A moderator needs to be a social scientist by training, a group facilitator, understand cultural trends, and enjoy people profoundly.  

Focus groups are for uncovering cultural meaning in the course of symbolic interaction.