Why Focus Groups Are Mostly A Waste Of Time

“It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless.” – Oscar Wilde (Intentions, 1891)

Before I knew something about marketing, I was a big fan of focus groups. I figured if you wanted to know something about your customers — what they liked and didn’t like about your product — the simplest and smartest thing to do would be to ask them.

But something curious happened when I finally had a chance to take part in them. The criticisms the groups lodged seemed to make sense, but when we responded to them, nothing very good happened. In several cases, we made product and fulfillment changes based on the recommendations we received. They all made sense, so we went ahead and made the changes without testing them — and our customer-retention rates did not improve. In fact, they went down a bit.

Focus-group recommendations also proved to be unreliable when it came to finding out how best to market to our customers. I remember distinctly that when we asked one group about certain sales letters, for example, they very strongly preferred those that were smart and appealed to a more educated reader. When shown the hypier sales letters, the people in the group went so far as to say they wouldn’t even give them a second look. They found them so insulting, they said, that they would trash them as soon as they spotted them.

As a young marketer hellbent on improving my company’s bottom line, I was happy to hear this. I immediately set about writing sales letters that flattered rather than insulted the intelligence. I wrote clever, thoughtful, sometimes witty letters. I didn’t forget the basics of persuasion, but I cleaned up my act.

What happened was, well, disappointing. In every single case — and I tested this over and over again — the hypier letter outpulled the smart one, and by a vast margin. The difference was so great, in fact, that I couldn’t justify sticking with the smart letter on the basis that it would attract more qualified buyers. There was no reasonable way to run projections through a spreadsheet that would support that wishful view.

The next time I did a focus group, I asked the same set of questions — but this time, I conducted a sneaky little experiment. I had tracked each focus-group member back to the particular promotion he had responded to. I then showed each one the exact promotion he had “bought into” along with another smarter one — and I asked which he preferred.

To a man, they all said the smarter one. When I asked them what they would do with the other package — the one they had actually responded to — they all said, “trash it.”

How could this be?

Why Focus Groups Are Unreliable

Several reasons. First, when individuals are in a group, they no longer act like the individuals they are at home. They conduct themselves like the people they are in public. In most cases, it turns out, this is a very different personality. Whereas the private individual may be susceptible to strong language and exaggerated claims, the public person abhors them. Whereas the private reader wishes earnestly to become a millionaire overnight, the public person ridicules the very idea.

Another big reason focus groups fail concerns their basic structure. When you get six or eight people in a room together, a natural social dynamic takes place whereby one or two of them take charge and the rest follow” or “drop out.” (I talked about this briefly in Message #314.) Despite your best efforts to get every individual to speak for himself, the group dynamic will give you something different. It’s another case of split personalities. Most of us have one way of acting when we are alone and another when we’re in a group.

So what you often get from focus groups is some version of one or two people’s opinions — and even those opinions may be not genuine but “public.”

Now, if you sell your product in group settings (at seminars, for example), focus groups might give you some very useful information. But most of us sell in ways that find our customers by themselves when they hear our pitch.

If you want to know what they really think and how they really respond, you have to question them when they are by themselves. And that usually means via some form of survey — either written or oral.

I’m not saying that focus groups never work. They work, as I said, when your selling strategy is “public.” And I think they can be very useful in generating ideas, all kinds of ideas about what your prospective buyers want and think and will buy. And while these ideas will be stimulated by the focus-group conversation, the best of them will come to you as inspirations derived from what is not said or alluded to much more than they will come directly as suggestions from the focus-group members themselves.

Think of focus-group meetings as brainstorming sessions. The data you get is raw input. At least some of the focus-group members intend for it to give you a certain impression about them. Your job is to ignore the intentional messages and see if you can discover some hidden messages that leap out from between the lines. If you can do that, then, by all means, have your focus groups. If you can’t, it’s much better to conduct surveys.