It’s time to bury focus groups, not to praise them

The evil that they do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.

Shakespeare, you see, wasn’t really writing about Marc Antony’s view of Caesar. Rather, The Bard was prophesying the future.

Don’t believe me? Then stop, now, and you must watch this, Apple’s 1984 commercial tested before a real, live, unrehearsed focus group:

There. Your life will never be the same. Because most focus groups are like a coin, except they’re too complicated, and so if they’re right 50% of the time, fortune has smiled upon you.

But why is this? And why is there still debate on the subject? Is there any type of “focus group” that has value? What are the alternatives? Read on to see.

There are 5 reasons why focus groups are worse than useless:

  1. Bad incentives. Want $100 for 2 hours in a room with fluorescent lights while you’re being “secretly” videotaped? Well, come on down! It’s all very The Price Is Right because, indeed, the price must be right which means the focus group participant must a) be available; b) want to drive someone to get anywhere from $50 – $200 in cash at the end of it; c) want to drive someone to get anywhere from $50 – $200 in cash at the end of it. Because how many of us wouldn’t attend a focus group if we were paid $10,000 and how many existing participants would attend if they were paid $0.01? The result is self-selection that has absolutely nothing to do with your target market. Only people who need the money, who are available at random times and who also may feel that they can give voice to the voiceless, even if it’s over a candy bar or dish soap packaging, go. (To those who object that there are “qualifying questions,” most Labrador Retrievers could pass that screen, not to impugn a fine breed of dog, and as the organizers of the focus group get closer to the deadline, well, standards drop. Off a cliff.)
  2. The wrong people. Garbage in, garbage out means that the wrong screening questions will recruit the wrong people, all other factors aside. In the 1984 focus group, one participant lamented the lack of cute animals, while others concurred on the “depressing” nature of the ad. The heroic and aspirational aspects were missed. Now, you might say, “these weren’t the brightest bulbs in the universe,” but intelligence wasn’t the problem, banality was — and often is.
  3. Me, me, me. If no one listens to me, well “Now, they’ll have to!” “Finally, my opinion will count for something.” Now, not every participant is a narcissist, because some just need the money or perhaps they’re very bored. Others need the money, are bored and are narcissists. The trifecta. Thus, the focus group provides a stage to project our latent desires onto a megacorporation and finally have some influence. I’m sure Freud said that, albeit more eloquently.
  4. I’m a marketing expert! The purpose of a focus group is to attempt to see how people actually think and react, to get their spontaneous reaction to new packaging, a new name, a tagline and the like (or to understand what consumers really think about the competition). But that isn’t how human psychology works. When someone is asked what he thinks of the new logo, he doesn’t give an immediate response. Instead, he puts on his design and marketing cap and gives his “professional opinion” on the merits and demerits of the design. When someone is asked what she thinks of another brand, she thinks “that’s probably who these people are, and I don’t want to be too rude, so I’ll say something nice.” Then you have interpersonal dynamics. See 12 Angry Men for more details on that. Focus group dynamics aren’t much different. They are not “The blind leading the blind” but “The blind blinding those who once had sight.”
  5. Consequences. Many new products live or die by the focus group. The new Tropicana packaging that was a disaster? Focus group approved. Apple might not even exist today had Steve Jobs actually run 1984 by a focus group. In 2009, P&G CEO A.G. Lafley said, in an Business Week interview, “In our industry only 15% to 20% of new products succeed. P&G’s success rate is a little over 50%.” So P&G, the best in the business at focus groups and with the financial resources to get the best statistical confidence levels possible, is flipping a coin. The rest? According to Lafley, on good days, they’re flipping a 5-sided die. New Coke was a bit better. Focus groups showed a “pissed-off minority” ( But obviously not good enough.

So if focus groups should be deep-sixed, what are the alternatives?

  1. Take consumers out of their cages and unleash them into the wild. It’s more expensive, but try testing your products in a real store. Observe consumers’ behavior with a hidden camera. Even plant a “consumer” there who asks others for “help” or “if this is any good”? Because they’re actually in a store shopping for the product in question, because they have no monetary incentives, they aren’t going to go all reality-show-contestant for the camera. You’ll find out what they actually think, and how they actually behave. You’ll see their facial expressions. You’ll see them pick things up and put them back down after reading the label. Or perhaps after reading the label, you’ll see them walk away with the product. Too small to do this? If you attend trade shows, even swap meets — it doesn’t matter. What you’re looking for is a wild environment where consumers act as they are, not as they want to be perceived. This is why Candid Camera tells you more than almost any focus group.
  2. Just because it works, you don’t have to change it. Just because it sells doesn’t mean you should be selling it. Does your logo need an update like you need a Mohawk? Should you really be line-extending the same brand to compete against companies where you’d be a sure-fire #4? Should you be ignoring what your company stands for in terms of quality, price, design aesthetic and level of service? When the product cannot be rationalized, you don’t need a focus group to kill it. You just need to lead.
  3. See the future without being psychic. Steve Jobs did. So did Elon Musk, Pierre Omidyar (eBay) and Coco Chanel. Sometimes your instincts and intuition — not simple guesses, but honed from personal insights into the market — insights others may not even be capable of having — are the best of all.