Arguments about the value of focus groups in market research circles continue to go around and round. As ever, there are stubborn views on both sides. While some extol the benefits of free-flowing conversations, others reject any insights obtained from an ‘artificial’ environment. And though this merry-go-round might only seem relevant to research specialists, successful brands recognise the importance of a good research methodology.
Decision Technology, a behavioural research consultancy, recently published unique research on ethical consumerism. With more brands targeting an alleged growth in conscientious shoppers, Decision Technology’s report explores how consumers actually behave, rather than what they say they do.
Strikingly, the research finds that consumers exaggerate their ethical behaviour across a range of actions, from recycling to avoiding palm oil products. Consequently, the report warns brands against investing blindly in new ethical products and marketing campaigns. But Decision Technology stress that the research findings would likely have been different if it had relied on self-reporting alone.
Typically, people are not good at looking inwards. Therefore, brands should be less certain of any insights that self-reporting may uncover.
Instead, brands should employ experimental methods that robustly test hypotheses in a controlled environment. This approach is more likely to produce reliable insights. Decision Technology used a range of randomised control trials in its research. One notable example is the unmatched count technique (UCT), which was used as part of the research on consumers’ ethical behaviour. UCT provided respondents with anonymity and thus encouraged them to answer questions more truthfully. As a result, Decision Technology found that consumers overstate their ethical actions, especially those that are topical and time-consuming.
But from our work with South Essex Active Travel (SEAT), we know that focus groups can also reveal a treasure trove of audience insights. When we first started working with SEAT, our focus was to evolve a brand called Ideas in Motion which had been directed at Southend and develop it into something which could be rolled out across south Essex. Using a highly interactive fuzzy felt method, we were able to get stakeholders to explain their transport behaviours in an engaging set of focus groups The approach also drew out rich insights into the unique identities of different parts of the region – insights that would be difficult to generate from a basic quantitative survey.
The focus groups led to the creation of ForwardMotion, a behaviour change programme that continues to engage audiences from a range of different socioeconomic backgrounds and ages.
There’s no doubt that research methodologies determine the quality and veracity of audience insights. And by extension, these go a long way to determining the overall effect of any brand’s marketing efforts. So wherever you might sit on the focus group debate, more brands should carefully consider the pros and cons of different research approaches to optimise their marketing spend.