Running creative “focus” groups in 2017
What’s the best way to run what used to be called focus groups when this methodology is the beginning to a hybrid, innovative, exploratory, qualitative research effort? Once upon a time, the original style of focus groups was used for everything…from concept reaction, to behavioral and attitudinal focus, and to get high-level needs information at a broad, diverse level. Groups were sometimes the only methodology; their findings were then quantified. Then, focus groups fell out of favor 10+ years ago, as online bulletin boards and mobile techniques emerged. There were complaints of bandwagoning and too much subjectivity with the old focus groups.
However, groups are back in fashion again. We’ve discovered (as have clients) that we really want to—need to—understand the social and collective elements of a product, concept, or category. The social and collective are just one of multiple perspectives on the persona of the consumer, and the social and collective are only possible through live groups. Of course, groups aren’t a final word on a study because we want a 360 view of the consumer through more individualized online and personalized in-situ ethnographic methodologies. But, groups remain the best beginning to a customer journey because they open the inquiry into multiple perspectives that can finetune the online and put it into an observational dimension once we’re at the ethnography stage. Through the creative group, we get to know the real consumer in person.
When running contemporary focus groups in 2017 that start an exploratory effort, let them be as spontaneous as possible. The new name of the game is to eliminate “focus” from the methodology of focus groups. Run them for a little longer time, like 2.5 hours, and take a break in the middle, to get consumers really relaxed and friendly with you and the others. Don’t worry too much about bandwagoning and competing opinions. If it gets too much, you can always take out the disturbing consumer. Use a lot of projective exercises, keep crayons and archetype cards around for new insights, go deep emotionally, and ask a few off-the-wall questions about consumers’ lives, loves, and interests outside of the topic at hand. Ask about weight loss or dating even if we’re in the middle of a technology project. Ask if anyone had a dream or a fantasy that they can tell us about…on anything as long as it’s not TMI. You’ll be surprised how revitalized a group can get when the subject is really relevant. We can always go back to the real topic once a new wave of subjective vitality has inundated the group.
We like to double moderate our creative groups when it seems right. If two anthropologists are going to do a phase of later observational ethnographic methodologies, the same two anthropologists or psychologists will run the group together, one sitting across from the one in the moderator’s seat. Two moderators frame the group. There are three benefits for double moderation: The consumers get to know that there are several research leadership styles, they get to know the other anthropologist by name and personality who might do their personal ethnography in another week or moderate their portion of the online, and the other anthropologist can take over while the first moderator leaves the room, checks with the client team in the back, or gets materials ready for showing and discussion. Things stay livelier with two. The moderators can talk with each other and ask questions out loud, like, I wonder why the group went silent when we showed this concept? Consumers dive back in to answer two of us. New or deeper questions that one moderator didn’t think of can be asked by the second. Sometimes, we have a client from the backroom sit in the groups to act as a second moderating force.
In 2017, the way we moderate our groups is to actively seek looseness and environmental subjectivity, creativity, and spontaneity. We encourage emotions, adding in projective techniques early on. We go on and off topic. We add in moderators. We put in a wishing module that extends to consumers’ lives and families independent of the topic. The topic remains important, sure, but it’s not necessary to run a strictly linear group with a totally democratic style. No, we don’t want distressing or disturbing dominators—nor wallflowers—but people are people and we want to see them interact in a highly social experiential mode that portrays the collective spirit of the concept or category.
In summary: Wish a little. Let the group dive into the collective unconscious. Let creative—rather than focus—groups be the entry point into a hybrid qualitative effort that quickly moves into online and ethnographic dimensions to gain a 360 perspective for our consumers.