5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Rely on Focus Groups Any Longer

When asked, most of the organizations I meet say their primary ways of getting qualitative market input, direction and feedback are through surveys and focus groups.   Given that focus groups have been around forever, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, but to me it is.   Amazingly so.

Why? Because for the last six years or longer, it’s become evidently clear that the insight, input and data you can get from online engagement and research using methods like crowdsourcing  blows away the results you get from focus groups, and at a favorable price point.

Since habits are hard to change and organizational behavior even harder, I suppose it shouldn’t be as surprising to me as it is.  But, let me share five clear reasons why if you are still in the focus group camp, you really owe it to yourself to check out crowdsourcing.  Here goes:

  • Cost and reach:  When I ask people how much they spend on a single focus group they say anywhere from $7500 to $50,000.  That buys typically two hours of time with 8-10 people in a rented room with a hired facilitator with little to no ability to follow up with the participants afterwards.  For far less than the high end of that range you can engage hundreds, or even thousands, of people for weeks with crowdsourcing, and go back to them over and over again and generate piles of better data – both qual and quant.
  • Participant bias: Focus groups are typically conducted with “recruited” participants who are often plied with a stipend of $100 or more for their time.  This means a few things with regards to who participates.   First, some of the participants are there for the money – they won’t get rich, but hey, its not bad for a couple of hours of time, but its unclear if they really have an interest in your organization’s mission.   Second, they have the time and a way to get there.  So that rules out people with two jobs, single parents with kids, people without easy transportation etc etc.   In other words, it’s very hard to get a representative sample in a group of 8-10 people, or even several groups of 8-10.   These and other related factors introduce significant bias to your results.   With crowdsourcing, and online engagement, people participate from the comfort of their own home or office, on their PC, on their time, often with little or no incentives, so its far easier to bring together a representative sample, and be confident that they are actually interested in whats important to you.
  • In-room bias: As anyone who has participated in or observed focus groups knows, once you get your participants in a room, even with a very skilled facilitator, it’s almost impossible to avoid “in-room bias”.  Typically, one or two of the participants are more outspoken than the others, and others start to agree with them.  Or perhaps one or more are particularly physically attractive, again that can breed agreement.    On the flip side, many people are conflict-averse and may hold off voicing a dissenting opinion because they don’t want to create the potentially awkward feeling that can exist when you are in the same room and disagree. Crowdsourcing is online, allows the same collaborative approach of “hearing” what others have to say and being able to add your own comment, but without that in-room bias. Everyone can have their say.
  • “On-the spot” thinking  – Putting people under pressure to make a decision is what we call “putting them on the spot”.   Most people don’t think well when they are put on the spot, and that’s essentially what focus groups, and surveys do.  We ask people to tell us RIGHT THEN what they think about something.   How many times have you made a point about something to someone, only to think later on  “I should have said THIS – it’s really important to me but I just didn’t think of it at the time”.  The comments you get at focus groups do not always represent what people really think – it’s just what they thought of on the spot.  Crowdsourcing takes place over days or weeks, allowing lots of time for people to think about what they really feel about something before the comment or submit.
  • Follow up questions  – In my experience, focus groups can raise just as many questions as they answer.   With focus groups, you almost always wish afterwards that you asked a few other different questions, and you often identify things that were said that you would like to know more about.  But it’s too hard and costly to get the same people back in the room.  With crowdsourcing, you can go back to the same crowd, over and over, to ask more questions, and ask for more detail about something that was said.  In fact participants love it when you share what you heard from them before and ask them a follow on question – it makes them feel like they are really part of the process.

I admit there are some benefits of focus groups that you can’t re-create online, like being able to observe physical reactions and body language, and allowing people to experience new products.  But there are many more reasons I haven’t listed why you should really start to question your use of focus groups and think hard about moving online to engage and conduct research.  Its working fantastically well for many leading organizations around the world, and quite frequently organizations that try crowdsourcing end up doing it more and more, because they see the value, and the advantages, of online engagement.

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