How to save money on focus groups. Don’t do them.

In the middle ages, people threw suspected witches into a pond. If they drowned, they were innocent. If they were guilty, they were towelled off and tossed on a bonfire. Today we can only shake our heads in despair at such dim-witted practises. But the people who invented these tests weren’t idiots. They had a quota of witches to burn, and weren’t interested in the truth. They just needed a justification for their actions.

Don't look at me, the pond said she was a witch.

Don't look at me, the pond said she was a witch.

Today, focus groups serve the same purpose. They provide justification for action, with little regard for what real consumers actually do or what they might want or need. Don’t look at me, the focus groups didn’t hate it.

I want to get on to the better alternatives than a focus group, but I should probably give you a few examples of their failings:

·      The one-way mirror encourages partial attention, sarcastic commentary and a general disrespect of consumers. Everybody sits with their laptops open, nobody gets to know their customers

·      You’ll only hear what people want to reveal about themselves in front of a group of strangers

·      A witty, or aggressive, or highly opinionated consumer can quickly send a group into a ‘cynicism spiral’. No moderator can pull a group out of a bad case of ‘Only an idiot would buy an X’

·      One mis-recruited person can poison a well: try getting a group of high net worth individuals to open up about private jets when one person reveals they can’t afford one. Not. Going. To. Happen.

·      People are so far away from the place they might use a product, it’s hard for them to conjure up the conditions where it’s used.


There’s a lot of complaints at the moment about our post-fact society. When you commission a focus group, you’re part of the problem. If you are actually interested in the truth – about whether a product will succeed or fail, what problem your company should brief its R&D labs to solve, or how to fix a ‘problem child’ in your portfolio, then there are better methodologies out there.


Our next few blog posts will describe some of the best methodologies we’ve used to get meaningful insights for some of the world’s biggest brands.