“What kind of M&Ms would you like?”

That’s the canned answer that pops up in my head almost instantly when a client submits a request blindly asking for ‘some focus groups’.    

It’s not that focus groups are inherently a bad way of doing research, but they’re often not the smartest route of action.    I’m consistently puzzled by why some clients and agencies insist on repeatedly bringing together a whack of complete strangers, feeding them an eighth of a sandwich and then enclosing them inside a hospital-like environment while they discuss the merits of what kind of Bratwurst they would eat if they were eating Bratwurst.  

Focus groups will prove what you want them to prove.    

Keep in mind.  This is being said by someone who’s conducted literally hundreds of focus groups.    It’s a huge part of our business.  

But it’s not the entire toolbox.  Not hardly.   

It’s really all about finding the best solution to a problem.

Never before have we been so brave in our effort to connect with consumers.    It’s not about making them come to you,  it’s about reaching into their actual world and finding out not only what they say… but what they actually do.     

The ability to observe and interact with people is no longer confined to a fixed space.   Using technology and technique we can effectively work to break down the barriers that once necessitated dedicated observation rooms.    Every human is now armed with a massive recording and transmitting device in their pocket.    It’s now possible to capture moments without losing their context.    We can gaze into the most intimate interactions or slice through metadata from the most macro perspective.

The only limitation is creativity. 

Over the years we’ve traveled around the world exploring the best way to understand how people really behave.   We’ve gone into their homes.   We’ve gone behind the bar.  We’ve created reality TV shows and gotten ourselves employed at convenience stores. All in the name of research.  To feel what it’s really like.  To break down the glass.  

Focus groups are not dead, and they’re unfortunately a fact of marketing life.   There are some clear and distinct benefits to conducting focus group research, even indirectly.  The back room is often more important than the front room.  Any opportunity to get the whole project team sequestered for hours with each other can be incredibly useful as a team building exercise.   This benefit can be maximized by smart resource management or with active back room facilitation.   Building a workshop or adding gamification to observation can work wonders for clients.  

Just the opportunity for people to be out of the office can be liberating.  

As someone who’s actively involved in this field, I’m really interested in hearing the opinions that get shared at the APG Canada’s event on March 2nd.   “Getting Out of the Focus Group Rut:  Fresh Ways To Find Insight.”    By bringing together four distinct and diverse perspectives, attendees will walk out of the room getting a much better idea of what is possible in the field of insight gathering capabilities.   

Let’s be honest.  Basing the entirety of your brand’s market direction on the opinion of a bunch of random people who were able to respond to a phone call without slurring, find Yonge and Eglinton and remain upright is absolutely insane. 

Let’s discuss. 


Daniel Berkal is SVP Research & Innovation at The Palmerston Group.  His team has conducted ethnographies, accompanied shops, mystery shops, videographers, ideation sessions and  literally hundreds of energetic focus groups of various sizes among consumers and professionals in North America, Central America, Europe and Asia. He specializes in immersive methodologies and hard-to-reach participants.

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Roberto Faria has written 3 post in this blog.