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The Art Of Focus Groups

Finished doing three focus groups in Houston and am gearing up to do some more in London. Moderating focus groups is something of an art.

For the most part, we try to imitate the Jr. Pundits — age 4 and 5 — when moderating. The key is to have a kind of childlike curiosity and a childlike innocence. No question should be considered too simple to ask.

You have to show great respect to a randomly selected group of people and somehow convince them that they, and they alone, have important information that, if shared, could help make the world a better place.

Yet, you have to also persuade them that grandstanding and faking it won’t help at all.

Focus groups are humbling. What you learn is how unimportant our trade’s obsessions are to the average person.

Sometimes this is dangerous as it leads consumers to half pay attention, which leads to misinformation. So somebody will pipe up that they read that to be certified organic, beef has to come from a cow that lived on an organic farm for five days!

Sometimes, of course, this lack of attention helps the industry recover. Very frequently, if you are having a conversation in the focus group about brands and you ask if any branded produce has ever had a food safety issue or been involved in a recall, you will get a room of people all agreeing that they have never heard of that.

A lot more survey research gets done than focus groups. Surveys are quantitative; they produce simple numbers that can be promoted easily. Focus groups are expensive to conduct, need to be done in many locations with many demographic groups and then require careful analysis. They are qualitative and thus subject to all the wonderful variables of the human race. The findings are often subtle and often don’t lend themselves to headlines.

Both have their place, of course and, in fact, the best quantitative research is always preceded by a qualitative component to ascertain exactly what words mean to different people so that the surveys can be written appropriately.

Yet we confess a preference for the qualitative. To find a truth in a focus group is like listening to a symphony and then identifying that one note where the strings take flight.

In Houston, we talked all about sustainability, “green” issues, corporate social responsibility and much else. Now it is on to London to see what we can find to compare and contrast.

The Pundit is going to do a workshop on all this research at PMA in October. It is all a part of what we have named “Fantastic Friday” going on the day before the trade show. You can still register to attend, learn more here.

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