Why do we buy certain products or choose certain brands? This is the sort of question advertisers have always asked, and there are no easy answers. However, there is a handy tool that helps companies explore this and similar questions, and it’s called the focus group. Until the 1940s, market research was often quantitative using things like sales figures and customer polls to track consumption.
But this changed during World War II. Sociologists Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld set out to learn how unprecedented exposure to wartime propaganda was affecting the public. Instead of polling large numbers of people with straightforward questions and quantifiable answers, the researchers conducted in-person interviews, sometimes with small groups, engaging them in more open discussions.
Later, this method was picked up by the advertising industry with the help of consultants, like Austrian-born psychologist Ernest Dichter, who first coined the term focus group. This new technique was a type of qualitative research focused on the nature of people’s preferences and thoughts. It couldn’t tell marketers what percentage of people buy a certain product or brand, but it could tell them more about the people who do, their reasoning for doing so, and even the unconscious motivations behind those reasons.
Rather than providing definite conclusions for business and sales, focus groups would be used for exploratory research, generating new ideas for products and marketing based on deeper understanding of consumer habits. For example, early focus groups found that contrary to popular opinion at the time, wives often had more influence than their husbands when choosing which car to buy, so Chrysler shifted gears by marketing cars directly to women.
And Dr. Dichter himself conducted focus groups for Mattel to learn what girls wanted in a doll. The result was the original Barbie doll. So how does a focus group work? First, companies recruit between six and ten participants according to specific criteria that meet their research objectives. They could be mothers of children between five and seven, or teenagers planning to buy a new phone in the next three months.
This is often done through professional recruiters who manage lists of people who’ve agreed to participate in focus groups for payment or other rewards. During a session, participants are asked to respond to various prompts from the group moderator, like sharing their opinions on a certain product, or their emotional reactions to an advertisement. They may even be asked to do seemingly unrelated tasks, like imagining brands as animals in a zoo.
The idea is that this can reveal useful information about the participant’s feelings that traditional questions might not get to. Beyond these basics, many variations are possible. A focus group may have two or more moderators perhaps taking opposite sides on a question, or a researcher might be hidden in the focus group unknown to other participants to see how their answers can be influenced.
And the whole process may also be observed by researchers through a one-way mirror. But although they can provide valuable insight, focus groups do have their limitations, and one of the main ones is that the simple act of observing something can change it. This principle is called observer interference. The answers participants give are likely to be affected by the presence of the researchers, social pressure from the rest of the group, or simply knowing that they’re taking part in a focus group.
And because researchers often use a small sample size in a specific setting, it’s hard to generalize their results. The findings that researchers do reach from focus groups are often tested through experiments and data gathering. Those put numbers on questions like how many potential customers there are and what price they’d be willing to pay. This part of the process changes as technology evolves. But focus groups have remained largely the same for decades. Perhaps when it comes to the big, important questions, there’s no substitute for people genuinely interacting with each other.