The traditional focus group, complete with a one-way mirror, a
moderator and half a dozen consumers prepared to discuss anything from
the future of the monarchy to their favourite yoghurt, has come under
New Labour’s well publicised use of focus groups has led to accusations
from political commentators that they have too much influence on party
strategy. Meanwhile, the advertising industry is well aware of the
shortcomings of focus groups - the artificial environment, the
professional groupies and the consumers who will say anything in return
for pounds 20.
But for all their faults, they remain one of the best ways of eliciting
information. ’They are immensely useful to help you get into the heads
of the target audience. If you are looking for how they really feel
about a brand, then focus groups are invaluable,’ Janet Grimes, a senior
planner at Ogilvy & Mather, says.
Focus groups are becoming increasingly popular as Laura Winstanley, of
Winstanley Research, explains. ’They are fashionable at the moment. In
big companies market research has been squeezed financially - 15 years
ago they did big attitudinal studies but now they use focus groups as a
In a bid to overcome some of the problems associated with traditional
groups, the market research company, RDS Open Mind, is experimenting
with focus groups over the internet. Consumers, recruited via internet
news groups sit at their own PCs and type their responses, following a
strict set of rules which prevents everyone from typing at the same
time. The groups are led by a moderator and everything anyone types
automatically appears on the screens of all the participants.
’This form of research is now becoming standard practice in the US and
holds a lot of attractions,’ Ben Lovejoy, an associate director at RDS
Open Mind, says.
He believes using the internet helps with the recruitment of groups.
’The fact that respondents don’t have to travel to a central venue can
make recruitment easier and enables groups to be pulled together at
shorter notice and across greater distances.’ Clients can ’view’ the
group in front of a computer in their own office, and it is particularly
useful for international businesses where the client may not be able to
physically attend a traditional focus group, he says.
Open Mind is exploring whether consumers, because they are more relaxed
in their own homes, are less likely to be influenced by the group in
general, thus giving totally honest answers. ’Something which is not
necessarily true of face-to-face groups, no matter how skilled the
moderator,’ says Lovejoy.
While the experiment has been encouraging, these virtual groups are not
without their own problems, he says. The first is that currently the
internet is dominated by a certain type of consumer - ’techie’ males.
The second is that it is more difficult for a moderator to control a
group he or she can’t see.
Lovejoy says that his initial findings indicate that while the internet
will never be a replacement for conventional focus groups, it will
become an additional method of gathering consumer responses.
Barry Pritchard, a director at Davies Riley-Smith Maclay, says that he
doesn’t see the internet as an evolution but as a different method of
gaining information. ’In the next ten years technology will have
advanced so that we will be able to see everyone else in a group via the
Other technological advances are also having an effect on conventional
focus groups. Electronic Response Systems, which allow focus group
participants to respond to questions anonymously, are becoming
Paul Essex of Feedback Consumer Consultancy, says: ’Focus groups are
very good at eliciting deep responses, but very bad at giving you a
When a client wants to know what percentage of the group liked a certain
product, you ask the group and they look left and right at their peers
before responding.’ Essex says that using electronic response systems
often opens up new avenues of discussion.
As the number of focus groups increases, so do the number of viewing
facilities. More and more clients are now taking the opportunity to
watch consumers discussing their products.
Winstanley says that this may be due to the relative inexperience of
’Delayering means that a lot of experienced senior managers have gone
and so it is relatively inexperienced staff that are in control. There
is something very reassuring about a focus group where real people are
talking about your brand,’ she says.
However, Mark Tomblin, a director of the Cold Eye consultancy, says that
this can compromise the validity of focus groups. ’I have heard clients
say ’we have got a 50 per cent hit rate with this product’ because four
out of the eight people in a group liked it. In the wrong hands a focus
group can be a dangerous weapon.’
To ensure that the planner and moderator roles are not compromised by
clients, Pritchard advises that the backroom environment should be
staffed by a professional. ’Clients don’t go to all the groups and
therefore can get a skewed impression or may jump to conclusions, so you
need someone there with them.’