The Greatly Maligned Focus Group

Posted 30 Nov 2022

May I begin by recommending a marketing podcast entitled ‘Black T-Shirts’[i] that celebrates the intersection between creativity and marketing. The podcast is hosted by brilliant creative, Adam Ferrier and leading CMO Brent Smart.

After chatting to the guest about their creative achievements, Adam and Brent submit the work to “the focus group.” With trepidation, the guest creative listens to the focus group excerpts. Often this leads to a conversation about the role of focus groups in pre-testing, and the guests’ response ranges from outright rejection to conditional acceptance but never, wholehearted support.

I have previously shared my view of the role of qualitative research in guiding and indeed, assessing creative. ‘In many instances, creatives are correct and indeed justified in objecting to research practitioners using subjective and invalid means for critiquing their work’[ii]

Informing the creative brief

In the development of marketing communications, the main role of qualitative research is to inform the creative brief. It is not at all controversial to suggest that when it comes to communications strategy, the junction point between the brand owner and the creative partner is the creative brief. Analogous to the horse trainer giving the jockey instructions on race day, the organization sets the parameters in terms of the strategy. But just as the jockey rides the race, the creative partner has the freedom to craft great marketing communications within the constraints of the strategy.

Acar et al[iii] found that creativity thrives under constraints. In the context of marketing communications, there may be many constraints however, the fundamental constraints relate to embodying into the creative brief, the rational and emotional motivators that econometric modelling has identified are likely to bring about behavioral change, in the form of brand choice.

What these attributes exactly mean in the context of consumption behaviour is best uncovered via qualitative research

Econometric modelling pinpoints the primary category motivators however, what these attributes exactly mean in the context of consumption behaviour is best uncovered via qualitative research. When the product or service is relatively low involvement (meaning low personal risk to the research participant), the quality of the insight benefits from the interaction of focus group participants to raise salience and produce content depth. In that instance, focus groups are ideal.

Understanding rational and emotional motivators

Moreover, focus groups are perfect for providing the necessary depth to the creative brief for both the rational and emotional motivators. In the case of emotions, focus groups provide an understanding of what codes may be used to detonate implicit associations that sit behind the emotion and the category. This is in turn used by the creatives for discrete, emotion eliciting material that is open to interpretation based on individual experiences.

The brand is the facilitator not the object of the discrete emotion.

The focus group moderator must constantly keep in mind that the brand is the facilitator not the object of the discrete emotion. This also needs to be kept front of mind for the brand owner and the creative. With this understanding, the very idea of “brand love” is a nonsense. Creatives who succumb to the suggestion that the brand should be the object of love, happiness, contentment, or pride have misunderstood the role of emotion in detonating behaviour. I don’t love my mobile phone carrier; I love the personal interactions the phone facilitates. Focus groups are the vehicle for uncovering the intersection of human motivation and category and brand related behavior.

The post-pandemic focus groups

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically escalated the adoption of online focus groups and, except in specific circumstances post-pandemic, agencies have shown a reluctance to return to the in-person focus group. Instead of travelling to an unnatural environment, participants are willing to invest the time in preparation tasks and the online nature means that accessibility and diversity, particularly for non-metro participants, has markedly improved.

Online focus groups have also reduced social biases and ‘no-shows’ that can severely impact participation in focus groups, however, have been able to maintain the necessary interaction amongst participants.

Agile insights platforms such as QualBoard enable respondents to individually participate in tasks over several days and then come together for a group discussion. Artifacts related to the target emotion from within the participants’ own environment (e.g. photos, objects, etc.) can be readily sourced and a greater volume of participants can use mobile devices to participate in an environment suited to them, or specified by the facilitator such as in-store.

All in all

Other than perhaps, identifying unintended consequences and understanding sensibilities, there is no role for qualitative pretesting. Certainly, I would not use focus groups to critique the creative’s work. That is the role of objective, quantitative pretesting. A creative brief that is missing the quantitatively identified rational and emotional category drivers and the qualitatively extracted specific context for these drivers, severely reduces the likelihood of behavioral change arising from the creative.