The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 5 Issue 5   July 2009


While attending her recent college reunion, Julie was reminded of how difficult it is to speak frankly in a group setting. It also got her thinking about focus groups, and how group dynamics influence this type of research.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

Pomp In These Circumstances
I recently attended my college reunion. (And, for those of you who were guessing that it was my ten-year reunion, I bless you.)

It was quite the event. Between the parades, the praises for increased class giving, and the awards (one of my classmates has been so involved in rebuilding New Orleans that she was recently inducted into the Louisiana Women Hall of Fame), the reunion was both great fun and greatly inspiring.

As I reconnected with old friends and acquaintances over the weekend, it occurred to me that like many college classes, we were more demographically alike than different: Similar age; similar household income; similar taste in vehicles and similar focus on the performance of our respective investment portfolios, just to name a few examples.

That very first morning, in fact, I thought of how many focus group designers and researchers would salivate at the opportunity to pose questions to such a well-informed, homogenous group (okay, maybe too homogenous, but still well-informed). Just toss us in a conference room with a table, a white board and a couple of bowls of peanut M&Ms and voila… instant focus group!

But as the weekend progressed, I couldn’t help but notice the influence that group dynamics had in altering the tone and content of conversations — even among old friends.

Whether at meals, during campus tours, or before and after class pictures, any time there were more than three people present, the conversations became noticeably more guarded:
  • The mother whose son took time from college to go to Vietnam — and who in private shared her fears about his trip — simply shrugged to the larger group and said, “He’s almost twenty-one. It’s a great opportunity.”
  • The very successful fund-raising classmate, whose daughter is not coming to our college despite having been admitted, told me during one of our walks that she questions her parenting and the motivations behind her daughter’s choices (“Have I raised a child who makes choices that are better for her, or one who just wants to rebel from Mom’s choices?”).

    Speaking to the group, on the other hand, she just smiled and pointed out the benefits of her daughter becoming more independent as she attends college across the country.
  • The lawyer who was working next door to the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who, despite calmly describing what it was like that day, confided during a one-on-one conversation that her family had felt the need to create a backup emergency plan (and a backup to the backup emergency plan), should there ever be another attack.
The point is, group dynamics — even among people who are demographically similar and, as in our case, already well known to each other — prevent people from sharing their complete and full beliefs and opinions.

Shyness, personal positioning, distrust, feelings of competition with others… they all get in the way of honest and frank information exchange. Even the most skilled conversationalists have trouble eliciting unbiased feedback and entirely candid input from every individual in a group.

And that, it seems to me, is one of the primary problems with a focus group.

If each of us individually finds it hard to share our true feelings in front of others, why is it that when we, as researchers, want to understand our customers’ needs, wants, preferences and reactions to our products and services, we ask them to do so in a group setting?

Here’s the Twist: Just as a mother is more likely to share her fears for her travelling child in a one-on-one conversation, your customers are more likely to share their joys, hopes and fears when offered the security and comfort that only the intimacy of a private interaction can provide.

Do focus groups offer any benefit? Absolutely. For example, they are a terrific way for small groups to brainstorm new ideas. That said, if you think you’re getting an in-depth and honest point of view simply because you can see the faces and hear the voices of the people talking, you may want to join me at my next (15th!) college reunion!

— Julie

Click here to share this newsletter with a colleague.

I was recently amused to hear a client announce the following over a cocktail:

“Oh, people are full of it. They have no idea what they want or why. You have no idea how many times I have listened to focus groups where people go on and on about why they bought something, and I can tell they are deluding everyone around them, including, and especially, themselves.”

Never one to miss a selling opportunity, this observation opened the door for me to point out just a few of the benefits of one-on-one interviews compared to focus groups:

  1. Less Bias. In a typical focus group, a few of the participants do most of the talking. While an adept moderator can help smooth out any imbalance and try to involve the less talkative folks, it’s almost impossible to prevent group-think bias.

    One-on-one interviews, on the other hand, uncover the best thinking of each respondent, allowing your research to tap into the wisdom of all participants, rather than just the loudest few.
  1. More Quality. Unlike focus groups, in-depth interviewing is designed to elicit the “whys” behind participants’ reactions. A well-trained interviewer knows how and when to probe into people’s thought processes, to obtain a clearer understanding of exactly what participants mean by their answers, and without leading them to a particular conclusion.

    This kind of probing is awkward and difficult to accomplish systematically for each participant of a focus group.
  1. Easier Logistics. The problem with bringing together a group of people to a specific location at a specific time is that it requires bringing together a group of people to a specific location at a specific time.

    Physical presence is inherently inconvenient. For some audiences — CEOs or limited, highly targeted markets, for example — it’s near impossible.
Our client’s reference to “people deluding everyone around them, including, and especially, themselves” reminded me of the “pomp” (positioning) humans often bring to the “circumstances” of group settings. While listening to Elgar is certainly the right thing to do in graduation ceremonies, let’s try to keep it out of market research!


Pomp In These Circumstances

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

And speaking of one-on-one interviewing, Mark’s article, “One-on-Ones Put the Quality in Qualitative,” reprinted from Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, is now available as a free download on our web site.

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

— John Lennon &
Paul McCartney

We dress like students, we dress like housewives
or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle so many times now
I don’t know what I look like!

— Talking Heads

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?

— The Who

Problems? Click here to send us an email with your request.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result, our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.

Understanding What People Really Think

WordPress Lightbox Plugin