The Danger of Focus Groups

Tom Fishburne makes brilliant cartoons about marketing and innovation, and the one in today’s blog post really rang true for me:

You should read Tom’s post, because he raises some important points about the problems with focus groups. I recently talked about some of my frustrating experiences with focus group research as well.

The danger of focus groups is that they make us feel like we’re getting close to our customers, which is good, right? The problem comes when we ask focus groups questions which they are not really equipped to answer. If you are trying to figure out which advertising approach to use, focus groups are great for getting comparative feedback on how people react to different ideas. If you want to get a handle on what people are thinking about a particular topic right now, focus groups are excellent.

But they are not very good for helping us invent the future.

In Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out, Douglas Rushkoff has several case studies that illustrate firms losing track of what they’re good at, including discussions of The Gap and Levi’s. Here’s what he says about The Gap:

The Gap lost its way by outsourcing design and manufacturing while holding steadfastly to a seasonal inventory schedule, and by utilizing focus groups instead of real-time store sales as its chief form of consumer feedback. The relative success of H&M and Zara stems from their ability to embrace the business they are in, and respond passionately to the challenge of developing the systems for ordering, inventory monitoring, and distribution that turned their shelves into a recognized and cherished form of fashion media.

If the challenge is to get close to the customer, then this shows one way to do so that might be better than focus groups – gathering in-depth data on what they are actually doing. Zara has been highly innovative in the methods they use to track stock – this gives them in-depth real-time data on what their customers want. So they are getting close to customers with data rather than through focus groups (for more on Zara’s inventory management, this is a good case study – Zara Case pdf).

Another approach is to go deep with observation instead of data. This can be done with an anthropological approach – one that Intel has been using successfully for the past few years. Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell describes how this deep study of peoples’ habits has enabled Intel to create new products in Asia:

For companies like Intel – as well as organizations like IBM, HP, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Ford Motor Company, Sears Robuck, and Harrah’s Casinos that also employ anthropologists – one of the challenges is that the market that consumes the technology has shifted away from being people just like us to people very unlike us. As your market shifts from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and you move past the assumption that they want to be just like you, one of the challenges becomes finding the right tools to figure out what it is that those people want.

“It becomes a really big challenge of how do you get a handle on those things,” says Bell. “Ethnography in particular – anthropologists, sociologist, psychologists – we all have a set of skills and expertise that allows us to get a those kinds of things. One of the virtues of what anthropology does when it does it well is to question the way the world works…and de-center people’s notions of fixed and human truths, and say, ‘no, those are actually just local cultural practice.’” In other words, anthropologists try and get companies to question their assumptions and what they take for granted, both about themselves, and, more importantly, their customers. “For me, a lot of the things I got told in the field and a lot of the stories that people shared with me served that purpose of saying, ‘we have all these assumptions about what technology does, but really, those are cultural assumptions and not universal truths.’”

You should read the entire interview, because it has some excellent insights into how this approach can work.

The examples of Zara’s and Intel are almost diametrically opposed in how they gather their data. But both approaches go very deep in trying to gain a better understanding of customers. Consequently, both also require major resources, and commitment, to execute.

That may point out the real problem with focus groups – on the surface they appear to get us closer to the customer, but in the end the knowledge that we gain is relatively superficial. To get genuinely close, we need to commit time and resources to learning about what they need, and how we can best provide it. It is this depth that will enable us to innovatively meet these needs.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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