Finally, The Truth About Focus Groups!

Well into her early 50's, Susan was exactly the kind of woman skin-care brands have in mind when they're trying to sell products like facial moisturizing creams. After all, with her motorcycle and thick salt-and-pepper hair still falling below her shoulders she must be hanging on to youth with both hands, right?

Not so much.

Standing in her garage, Susan was showing us her motorcycle when she set us straight. Yeah, riding the bike kept her feeling young. But moisturizers? She wasn't trying to turn back the clock to her 20s. She liked they way she looked now. Moisturizers, she turned to us and said, had everything to do with her looking "f***ing amazing" five years from now, when she would still be riding that bike. Skin care wasn't about holding on to the past. It was about planning for the future.

Try getting revelations like that out of a focus group.

Focus Groups Never Get to the Truth

Like everyone else in marketing, I've put in my time behind the double-sided mirrors watching and listening to focus groups. Here's what I've learned: Focus groups will never get to the truth. They will fill your head with information but they cannot give you true understanding. But isn't understanding the goal here?

Focus groups are relics of the World War II era. Meanwhile, today's consumers are bombarded with branding messages, and they are not going to pledge lifetime loyalty to a product just because their mom used it. They are smart, they know when someone's selling them something, and they have their guard up.

But many marketers haven't changed how they get to know the opinions, the lives, and the feelings of the people they want to fall in love with their brand. They bring people into a cold, impersonal, and totally artificial setting and expect them to open up and act natural. They ask them the same old questions that they know to ask and think that, somehow, they'll learn something new.

Does this approach make any sense? Some of us who didn't think so have been trying something new.

What's Next? Exploring!

Instead of focus groups, we're letting relationships drive our research. If you want someone to tell you what she really thinks about how she looks and how she feels about getting older--or anything else that matters--you need to get to know her first. You need to let her get to know you. And, most importantly, you need to shut up and listen.

We call this process exploring. But really, you could just call it common sense. With so much information at our fingertips, we're long past the era when buying was a passive experience. Today's consumers aren't robots--they're hunters, seeking out the brands that work for them right now. After all, if you want to find out how a lion hunts, you don't go to the zoo. You go to the jungle.

Lives are messy. We don't believe and feel what we do for pat reasons. People don't live behind double-sided mirrors -- they won't cough up their feelings and why they feel that way on demand. It takes time and it takes comfort. That's how you get to the "aha" moment that brings you to the truth about people's relationship with your brand. Get into someone's garage with her favorite motorcycle and you just might get answers to the questions you'd never have thought to ask.