BrainTrust Query: Death of the Focus Group

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Feb 17, 2011
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Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion
is a summary of a current article from the Retail Prophet Consulting blog.

Consumer
research often attempts to predict future consumer behavior but the reality
is that consumers very often say things that don’t correspond at
all to what they eventually do in-store. In fact, there’s often a gaping
disconnect between a consumer’s needs as articulated in focus groups and
the basket of stuff that gets taken home from the store. If the two matched up
even the least bit closely, marketing would be a cinch, but they often don’t
and with good reason — consumers rarely have a clue why they do what they
do in stores! And in other cases, focus group participants simply don’t
tell the truth, which probably doesn’t come as any great shock.

What’s
been missing is what shoppers actually do in the store! This has largely been
the realm of anecdotal data and lab-based studies, both of which are often
highly inaccurate.

That’s where I believe mobile apps, near field communication,
location based services and other intelligent retail technologies are poised
to revolutionize our approach to consumer and shopper research. For the first
time ever, researchers will be able to connect the expressed needs of consumers
with their actual, physical path to purchase. Questions like where they go
in the store and where don’t
they go, where they stop and what they race right by will finally be precisely
answerable. What’s critical is that marketers can view this kind of information
in aggregate according to what thousands of consumers do, not simply within
a narrow and controlled study group.

But understanding the consumer’s
physical path is only one of the new streams of data. The other and more important
stream will reveal what they actually engaged and interacted within the space.
Which in-store marketing messages did they connect with and for how long? Which
coupons did they download? Which products did they scan but put back without
buying? Marketers will see where consumers required more or less information
to make a decision and perhaps even when they compared prices with competitors
before deciding. Even insights on how different ages, sexes and races move
through a given retail environment are entirely possible.

Finally marketers
can validate the reams of data they currently collect with credible information
on the consumer’s actual in-store behavior. This
presents a whole new world of opportunity to give retail consumers what they
want — potentially
without ever once asking them. It’s also a chance to better understand
the gap between what consumers say and what they do.

In fact, it’s entirely
possible that this new ability to validate in-store consumer behavior will
render front and back end consumer surveys a thing of the past.

How will access to consumer insights from mobile technologies affect traditional consumer research methods such as focus groups and surveys?

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34 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Death of the Focus Group"


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Dan Berthiaume
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Dan Berthiaume
10 years 2 months ago

Very simply–these technologies allow real-time tracking of consumer behavior unavailable through any other means and vastly superior to manual tracking processes such as reviewing security video or posting undercover behavior experts in stores. A retailer can quickly collect data about actual behavior of customers across the country or globe, at a minimum sort it by regional factors, and get a much more accurate picture of what consumers actually want than they’ll get from a focus group. Focus groups will still remain valuable in verticals such as fast food where customers are relatively restricted in their actions.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

People have been predicting the demise of the focus group since we started using scanner data in the 1980s–it’s still around and serves a useful purpose in the researcher’s tool box. We’ve had in-store observational technology for some time and some of it is very good–I’m thinking of a company called Videomining as one example. Peter Fader’s work with store paths has also shown some interesting shopping phenomena.

Is mobile going to change the face of research? Not very likely. Whether we get data from an RFID shopping cart or a mobile phone is not very different from a research perspective. Retailers already know where people go and don’t go–we’ve not seen any examples of new insights on this topic. And I would bet that most of us could design high stopping-power displays–that doesn’t mean they are practical financially. There is less to this information than we might expect on the surface and mobile is not a radically new way to collect it.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

I’ve been trying to move my clients out of focus groups–or at least traditional focus groups–for what seems like a lifetime. If there were no alternatives, I still favor abandoning focus groups.

That said, new technologies and the creative use of social media can get us a much clearer picture of what consumers are likely to actually do–in the present and in the future.

I do think we need to spend some more time thinking about less invasive ways of polling consumers. Marketers still find the siren call of manipulation hard to refuse. Real understanding isn’t based on any system of the manipulation of forced choices. To get real consumer insight you first need to start thinking like a consumer yourself.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 2 months ago

Doug, Excellent article but, in a sense, hardly news. “Watch what they do, not what they say” has been a key principle of software usability for decades and a key theme for usability experts like Jakob Nielsen. For the various reasons you have mentioned, consumers generally don’t do what they say. So whether you are building software, workflows or merchandising programs, it is essential to watch customers. You can do this in person or electronically. The “science” behind usability is even more rigid. You usually give the user a high level task (“purchase product X from brand Y”), watch and record everything they do. You watch and record, but you don’t assist. What seems “obvious” to you, often isn’t to your customers. The results, as anyone who has observed such tests, are VERY insightful and humbling. I would argue the same methodology can be used for better understanding customer behaviours in the context of retail merchandising.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

I agree that consumers have traditionally shared misinformation in surveys and focus groups. For example, a consumer may state that they want more product variety in a store’s assortment, however their actual buying habits show that they don’t take advantage of the additional range of items in their shopping trips.

However, I also believe that surveys still hold value in identifying trends in shopping behavior. When a scientific, statistically-valid sampling is measured, I have seen overall trends in likes, dislikes, needs and wants emerge to paint a picture of true consumer characteristics that retailers and CPGers can respond to and proactively manage their businesses around.

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
10 years 2 months ago

The focus group has been the research everyone loves to hate for as long as anyone can recall.

While I agree that mobile technologies will provide a new vehicle for shopper insights, they are more likely to add to the options than replace traditional methods.

The advent of shopper card data, virtual research, and RFID tracking were all touted as replacements of “antiquated” methods. Instead, they tend to add new weapons to the traditional arsenal and expand our capabilities.

Joan Treistman
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Mobile devices and other technology will help retailers document consumer behavior as it is going on. They do not transform the ability to “predict” behavior. It’s more like looking at behavior through a rear view mirror.

There are ways to test marketing options before there is a commitment to a final investment. You can ask me for the details if you’d like. But it does cost some money…a bit more than a focus group or two. For serious marketers who wish to avoid the bigger risk of finding out something doesn’t work after in store placement there is an opportunity to pre-test.

Dan Raftery
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Good points all around. One more to consider: focus groups have been misused by those who think they can conduct research into human behavior outside the room in a focus group. As a result, many folks are skeptical of them (like Ryan Mathews who is rarely skeptical).

Properly designed and conducted, focus groups can provide valuable information about perceptions, reactions, usage, issues–things like that. But even within those narrow areas there are limits. I get a kick out of people who want to ask questions about price. I tell them not to waste their time and give them the answer right away.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 2 months ago
I’ve never been a fan of focus groups. Even if they did tell the truth and even if the participants were thoughtful enough to provide usable insights, they represent a statistically insignificant percentage of the shopping population, skewed towards individuals who, well, like going to focus groups. Mobile technology will continue to evolve and will no doubt provide some useful information. However, there is a huge resource that’s already in place, but is seldom used–the store associates. They are in the stores interacting with and observing customers every single day. And yet, there are very few retail organizations that take advantage of this resource. Some that do, like Bed Bath & Beyond for instance, reap huge rewards. In the late ’90s, Bed Bath and Linens ‘N Things had the same revenue and market cap. Bed Bath made their store organization an integral part of their decision-making. Linens didn’t. In 5 years, they were doing twice the volume of Linens and had a market cap that was 12x of Linens. Bed Bath is still here. Linens… Read more »
David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Focus groups still have their place if they are planned and executed for the right purposes and to accomplish the right objectives.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
10 years 2 months ago

Mobile technology and the apps that have and will continue arrive to help markers understand consumer behavior is great. We do however need to be careful and not look at this data as the whole truth, only a part of a very large puzzle called consumer behavior. Data can be collected from so many points, POS systems, mobile apps, panel, RFID, survey data and the list goes on. When you combine these disparate data sets you get closer to the whole truth. Do you ever arrive? No, you can just get closer. Something will always be missing in the data to truly give you a 100% understanding of the consumer and their behavior and that is okay.

I am glad to see mobile technology will help marketers. I just hope they don’t abandon other methods of understanding the consumer, but rather add this new data set to what they already have so they can get closer to 100%.

Dan Frechtling
Guest
10 years 2 months ago
Doug suggests a valuable solution to a vexing research problem. It’s puzzling to see paradoxes such as 80% of purchase decisions are made in-store (from an NRF presentation cited last week) and 80% of purchase decisions are made pre-store (SymphonyIRI). We either don’t really know or we need to better understand this elusive 160% of shoppers. Mobile research can increase the “n” cost efficiently. It can absolutely serve as an alternative to focus groups for certain questions. This holds a lot of promise. To round out our understanding of the shopper, we ideally need to address the gaps of mobile-derived data. Research that captures other inputs, perhaps just annually, helps us understand why, what and who. Here a few ways to supplement: *Pre-shopping behavior to help understand the trip (e.g., digital media viewed, lists made)*Observations to clarify being near a stimulus and interacting with it*Intercepts to ask shoppers why they did what they did and what they perceived*Purchase history to ascertain what they bought (ideally compared to past behavior and supplemented with cross-channel panel data)*Geo-demographics… Read more »
Veronica Kraushaar
Guest
Veronica Kraushaar
10 years 2 months ago

While it is true the new technologies allow rapid data mining, focus groups are still very viable when one is introducing a new product or simply want consumer reaction to visual or auditory cues. You can’t see the expression of the customer whose scan you just caught….

We try to apply quantitative (numbers) as well as qualitative (behavior) findings to our consumer research. They work together to deliver the real picture for our clients.

Marketers need to be careful when they predict that something will bite the dust. We predict Borders, for example, who just filed Chap 11 this week (another feature in today’s RetailWire), will reinvent itself differently from a “bookseller.” Maybe focus groups can also be reinvented to become more relevant to today’s new consumer/technologies.

John Karolefski
Guest
10 years 2 months ago
Focus groups have their flaws for sure. But that doesn’t mean they have no value. A good moderator can stimulate discussion and follow up on comments. There are nuggets of shopper insight from those groups even if not all of it is an totally accurate reflection of shopper behavior in stores. Then there are the new technologies such as in-store measurement of shopper behavior (a poster mentioned VideoMining, for example). They obviously provide a totally accurate picture of what is going on in the aisles. They should work in tandem with focus groups to give retailers and marketers a fuller view and understanding of shopper behavior. Meanwhile, I don’t agree with the article’s statement that “consumers rarely have a a clue why they do what they do in stores.” That notion is about as accurate as the tired cliche that 70% of purchase decisions are made in the store. The average grocery shopping trip takes about 20 minutes nowadays. Shoppers know the store layout and typically follow the same path to products. They typically buy… Read more »
Bill Robinson
Guest
Bill Robinson
10 years 2 months ago

As shopping apps enter the store, interesting and revealing consumer data points will become the basis for a new range of shopper analytics. For example what if the shopper pauses to access a shopper app to secure more product information? This event indicates a shortcoming in the retail store’s presentation or sales coverage. Merging this event with actual POS transaction information will signal the degree to which just-in-time product information influences the sale.

Another fascinating touch point is tracking the Dressing Room interaction. If the shopper tries on an item, but does not actually buy it, quality problems might be indicated. Items with high conversion rates will indicate high performing items.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
10 years 2 months ago

Focus groups are helpful in the product development area. But focus groups are a crutch for lazy management at retail. When management won’t take the time to walk the floors and talk to the customers, when management will not train employees, when management will not properly manage the business by going to the trouble of hiring the very best personnel, the a focus group won’t help.

ingrid bortels
Guest
ingrid bortels
10 years 2 months ago

Good article, really exiting about what is coming ahead in research, it looks fantastic but…although consumer and shopper are intertwined, research techniques are not necessary the same. Focus groups are not dead for development of new products (consumer), but they are indeed not appropriate for shopper research.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
10 years 2 months ago

Mobile data is sorely lacking the most important factor: Why?

I’ve sent 20 years changing advertising to cause immediate results. And what we never learn without qualitative research is the underlying motivation. As a result, observing mobile data is like reading the fossil record–all we can observe is what we happened to track. And the fossil record shows also what we will begin to encounter: constantly morphing theories what the mobile/fossils mean. None of it will be truly accurate.

And through it all, the wise ones will continue to rely first and foremost on data that helps us see motivation. Because that’s the only handle that can dramatically change profitability.

So bring it on! Mobile data offers opportunity for some fun analysis (assuming consumers play along and do our jobs for us by taking the steps to become trackable). But power will continue to come primarily from traditional methods.

Lisa Bradner
Guest
Lisa Bradner
10 years 2 months ago
Implicit in this thread is that no research technique is perfect, human behavior isn’t entirely logical and any single technique monolithically applied won’t work. I remember when I first got into product marketing we’d use focus groups for EVERYTHING but by the time you got to the last rounds you’d already sold the product in and had a ship date so any negative feedback you got was deep sixed as it was too late to make a change. Focus groups are a decent “top of the funnel” approach when you know nothing and you’re trying to get grounded. They are less helpful as a key to understanding human behavior since, as many have said, people often don’t understand why they do what they do. Every research technique has its flaw and we already have more data as an industry than we’re able to effectively action. I would call for a research plan that lays out “what we need to know,” “what stages of the funnel we’re trying to address,” and “how much data we need… Read more »
Dave Wendland
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Focus groups are certainly not dead. Granted there are numerous other alternatives to seeking input from stakeholders (and our firm uses them all). But for certain projects and certain outcomes, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned focus group where you can look into the eyes and hear the unspoken words of those from which you are hoping to glean insights.

Jason Goldberg
Guest
Jason Goldberg
10 years 2 months ago
Focus Groups have always been an easy-to-misuse tool. They are a valid means to get consumer insights and help develop new hypothesis to test and try, but all too often their output is treated as as data/evidence/validation, which it is not. Cognitive Psychology and Neuromarketing have completely debunked any insight tool that asks the consumer why they made a decision, or how they would behave in the future. Our brains are simply not wired to be aware of the majority of factors that influence our decisions, and we’re even worse about predicting how we’ll act/decide/feel in the future (Read Predicted Irrationality or The Buying Brain for examples). As Doug rightly points out, we are seeing more and more innovations in retail environments that let us collect real data about shopper behavior. Mobile and micro-geolocation will be huge for sure, but already in-place are tons of interactive displays that count individual shopper interactions. Want to know how many digital cameras per hour are shopped at a Best Buy? What order the phones are tried in a… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

I don’t think I agree with the basic premise of this article; we’ve always had a measure of WHAT people buy–it’s called “sales”–it’s the WHY they do it that focus groups seek to answer. I don’t think more intrusive…er, sophisticated methods of following people’s actions changes that.

Kaylor Hildenbrand
Guest
Kaylor Hildenbrand
10 years 2 months ago

As a qualitative research consultant for 15 years, I do not agree with calls to end focus group research. If focus groups are done the right way, the method can uncover many great and meaningful insights on the topic at hand. It can also, sometimes more importantly, bring attention to issues clients did not know they had or did not understand. Qualitative research, for me, can be summed up in three powerful words – –ASK, EXPLORE, UNDERSTAND.

Mobile technologies and tracking methods certainly have their place. They can provide real-time data on what happened, but not why it happened. I don’t think you can get to understanding without actually talking to and/or observing customers/consumers first hand. Yes, numbers and data points are important tangible measures, but without context, they remain very flat and static. They provide a snapshot of behavior. I think it is important for companies to go deeper.