Focus groups pretty much suck

The notion that focus groups pretty much suck has crossed your mind.  Only now someone is saying it out loud.  Having spent over two decades in the innovation (new product, new service), marketing, growth strategy, entrepreneurial and industrial design spaces and having sat through countless, mind-numbing focus groups, I’ve learned the hard way.

Here are reasons why the traditional focus group may just be the LAST PLACE ON EARTH to gain game-changing insights into your consumers and their needs:

  • ImageTraditional focus group rooms have are dull, artificial, sterile and have two way glass.  The real world (outside of XXX shops and select Las Vegas venues), doesn’t have two way glass or any of the other features just mentioned.
  • Most groups will have a Bossy-Pants, gotta talk early and often, know it all who sets the tone for the rest of the group.  Regardless of what others think, many respond in agreement with said bossy-pants just to fit in.  Worse yet, others then just shut down altogether.  This toxic stew gains you close to zero in terms of real world, usable insight.
  • People don’t make purchases or decisions in a group that sits around a conference room table.  They think and act alone under real conditions in real settings.
  • It doesn’t help whatsoever that most people have a really hard time telling you exactly what they want in the first place.  If they could, innovation, “the cool factor” and new product/service development wouldn’t be such a damn riddle.  The unnatural, uncomfortable focus group setting only exacerbates this problem.

In summary, if you want to be bored silly, get fat eating too many backroom M & M’s, burn your budget and LEARN LESS THAN YOU SHOULD ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMERS, by all means continue to rely solely on traditional focus groups.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to be bored silly, get fat or blow money, add in some guerrilla to your research.  Nothing will help you see the challenges, feel the frustrations, gain insights and uncover opportunities faster than spending time with your customers/prospects in natural settings where they actually use products and services, experience brands and live life in real time.

More on this next time.

About the authors: Eric Greene & Keith Poulson are principals at Elevation (it’s different up here).  We are an innovation firm that specializes in A-Z new product/service/growth strategy development (guerrilla research, opportunity I.D., brainstorming, concept development, industrial design, prototyping, engineering).  To learn more, go to:

3 thoughts on “Focus groups pretty much suck

  1. Oh dear. You have had a hard time with focus groups. Our world is about developing and crafting visitor experience in the attractions and cultural sector so quite different from industrial product design and the like. But I can say we’re having the best fun with kids and adults in focus groups using theatre and arts, entertainment and in situ co-creation techniques. And we’ve been doing that for about ten years. Do people still use those old focus group techniques? Wow!

  2. It’s not to say that focus groups have never been useful or insightful. I’ve been at this for over 20 years, so obviously there have been some good groups in there. It’s just that the results and insight rarely compare to research in more intimate, individual, real life settings. A lot of it is group dynamics and a lot of it is the sterile environment that doesn’t give people the full stimuli they need to conjure up thoughts. We almost always see outsize results with a more individualized approach. The exception: if a group or is idea building and brainstorming (which you call co-creation) – we have seen great results with such sessions.

  3. For creative market research we are using a great alternative to focus groups. Much more effective, faster and cheaper. With real-time multivariate testing, the most effective creative content is identified within hours, using real audiences, and at a fraction of the cost of focus groups. Find out more at

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