Curiosity Killed The Cat
Before I became a Senior Research Consultant at Brandtrust, I was a Senior Researcher here and as much as I love my job now, I didn’t love that work any less. I am a student at heart. I just really like to learn. And I am especially intrigued by people, by their lives and why they do the things they do. (If I were your next-door neighbor, you would just call me nosy, but I managed to turn this into a career.)
Being a researcher allowed me access to different kinds of people to learn about all sorts of issues, products, brands and behaviors through a variety of different methodologies. And I came to believe that there is a right and a wrong kind of research methodology for every question to be answered. Though surveys, focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnography and many other methodologies all attempt to serve the same basic purpose – they help us to gather information about people – they also each have their own individual merits and limitations. There is not one methodology that is adept at answering every research question or informing every business need.
Oh, You Moderate Focus Groups!
Because of this perspective, I was always surprised, in my former career as a researcher, when people would assume that qualitative research is really just about doing focus groups. When you meet someone new, they inevitably ask what you do for a living. I would always say, “I do qualitative research in Consumer Psychology,” to which they would reply, “Oh, you moderate focus groups.” Well, yes and no. I can and have moderated focus groups, sure. But that’s not what I did for a living exclusively. Time and time again this would happen, and not just with people outside the insights or marketing world. Even my clients would assume that my primary role was as a focus group moderator and that I was just doing Emotional Inquiry® or Contextual Inquiry interviews on the side.
Methodology or “Methodolatry?”
This preoccupation with focus groups was always very curious to me, and remains so. Why the heavy emphasis? Being the researcher I am, I had to look into this to see what gives. As a result, I found a great article in the Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal (Vol. 9 No. 1, 2006 pp. 26-37) about this very thing. This article, “Methodology or “methodolatry”? An evaluation of focus groups and depth interviews” by David Stokes and Richard Bergin examines the merits and deficiencies of focus groups and individual interviews by experimentally using both methodologies in parallel to answer the same market research question. The results were compared to determine differences between the findings. Additionally, focus group respondents were independently interviewed after the groups to determine if their responses were influenced by being in the presence of a group. This was an important secondary step because the debate over focus groups is often centered on whether these processes are influenced by pressure on participants to conform to the group or if the group interaction provides greater insight because of the process of interaction.
The study’s findings demonstrate what was similar and what was different between the outputs of these parallel studies. Both methodologies showed similar results when it came to central motivations for purchase, key buying processes, identification of target markets for the product and qualification of brand name. And the focus groups were found to provide more breadth and contextual information than the IDIs. Also, it was easier to reach a consensus among the participants about key questions.
Yeah, What He Said
However, the additional individual interviews with the focus group participants revealed that the consensus could not be validated. When asked to reflect on the groups and on the key questions where the groups provided consensus, many of the participants contradicted what they had said in the groups. Additionally, the respondents indicated that they were just trying to be polite by agreeing, rather than disagreeing with other group members.
Further, it was found that the cell of individual depth interviews was able to produce deeper insights into understanding the respondents’ perspectives and motivations for purchasing or not purchasing the studied product and that this type of insight would have great influence on developing an effective marketing strategy. If the information found in the focus group was employed to develop the marketing strategy, it would lead the brand in a direction decidedly different from the one informed by the insights uncovered in the IDIs.
Ultimately, this study confirmed that there are distinct benefits to both approaches, but the positive attributes of the focus groups did not outweigh those of the individual interviews in such a way, or in any way, that would indicate this methodology is superior.
Don’t Use A Hammer To Turn A Screw
So, what does this mean for marketers and insights professionals? I think it indicates that we need to really think about the questions we want to answer so we can be extremely intentional in our efforts to match our questions to the right methodologies. This article helps us understand that qualitative does not necessarily have to mean focus groups, and that marketers and insights professionals should not rely too heavily upon this solution for all their research needs. We need to feel confident in recommending other methodologies besides focus groups when our questions go a little deeper than the surface, and the thing we’re trying to uncover is not just the “what” of behavior, but the real and emotional “why” people do what they do that lurks underneath.