Why Focus Groups Don’t Work And Cost Millions

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We all know what “focus group” is and what it is used for. What we don’t admit quickly is that it has little use and that we all deal with it acting old school. With changing consumer ecosystem, we should think of some other more quantitative technique that is more relevant to the current stage. With ever evolving technology and sophisticated tools, there is no reason to feel otherwise. Focus group was never an efficient way to measure product-market fit. But, considering it was the only thing that was easily available that could provide a decent start; industry went with it. We are now at a point where we could change and upgrade ourselves to harness better ways to measure potential product need and adoption.

Few of the downsides of using focus group

Unnatural settings for participants
Consider a situation where a bunch of strangers come together and discuss about some product that they have not seen before. When in real life would such an incident occur? Why would someone speak honestly without any trust between moderator and the participant? This is not a natural setting where anyone experiences a real product. So why should we use this template to make decisions?

Not in accord of how a real decision process works
Calling people and having them sit in a group and vouch for product is not how we should decide on the attractiveness/adoption of a product. There are several other things that work in tandem to influence our decision making process spend on a product and those are almost impossible to replicate in focus group sessions. For example – In real life, most of the people depend on word of mouth and suggestions from friends and family to try and adopt a new product. Such a flaw induces greater margin of error in data gathered from such groups.

Motivation for the participants is different
This is another area which makes focus group less reliable area to focus on. Consider why someone will ever detach from their day-to-day lives to come to a focus group. The reasons could be many, namely – Money, early adopter, ability to meet / network with people etc. Such variation in experience and motivation for participants induces more noise than signals.

Not a right framework for asking for snap judgment on products
Another interesting point against focus group template is its framework to gather people out of the blue, have them experience product for the first time and ask for their opinion. Everyone brings their own speed to the table when it comes to understanding the product. So, how can it be not flawed when everyone is asked at same short interval to share their opinion? This also induces error in findings.

Little is useless and more is expensive
We all know that the background for the participants is highly variable, and it is almost impossible to carve a niche out of the participants. If few participants are invited, it is extremely hard to pin-point the needs of participants, and if we invite too many, it will be an expensive model and with all the error and flaws in it. This makes focus group model useless and costly.

It is not about the product but the experience
A product never alone work on its own, it often works in conjunction with experience that is delivered by other dependent areas. And cumulative interactions deliver the product experience. In focus group, it is extremely difficult to deliver an exact experience as it has not been built into the mix yet. Experience comes after numerous product iterations with customers. So, in initial stages, it is extremely difficult to suggest anything by just quick hands on with product and no experience build around it.

Innovation suppressant
Consider a case where iTunes is pitched to focus group. “iTunes is a place where you could buy individual songs and not the whole album, yes online and no, No CDs”. Have you ever wondered how that will fly? Focus group is great in suggesting something right in the ally of what is already present today. If there is a groundbreaking product whose market has not yet been explored, it could induce some uneasiness and could easily meet with huge rejection. So, focus groups are pretty much innovation killers.

People might not be honest unintentionally
Consider a case where you are asked about your true feelings for a product in a room full with people who think highly about it. Wouldn’t it skew your observation as well? We all have a strong tendency to bend towards political correctness causing us to skew actual findings. There are other such biases caused by group think, dominating personality in the room etc. that have been identified to invalidate the findings of the focus group sessions. This introduces error in judgment and makes collected data erroneous.

Above stated reasons are few of many that make a focus group obsolete, erroneous and unreliable. So, we should avoid using them and we should substitute it with other more effective ways.

So, what’s next? What should companies do? Let’s leave it to another day, and another blog. Catch you all soon.

Deeksha Joshi

Insurance Enthusiast, Innovationist, Data Driven, Strategist, Women in Business, Mentor, Advisor, Thought Leader, Mom & Traveler

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