The Rise of Focus Groups

How can Square Holes help?
How can we help?

It’s nice to discuss and debate issues in marketing strategy. Is digital the silver bullet? Does TV still have relevance? Do consumers care?

In a recent edition of SA Weekend Magazine from The Advertiser [South Australia’s News run daily newspaper] Michael McGuire wrote an interesting article about the pros and cons of focus groups from varying perspectives – political, practitioner, academic and advertiser. Yours truly was quoted as below.

“Jason Dunstone is an experienced moderator with Adelaide research group Square Holes. Sporting a disarming resemblance to former tennis player John McEnroe [?!], Dunstone is relaxed in his jeans and shirt – research houses are a bit too funky for boring old suits – as he explains how a focus group works. The analogy he uses is a funnel. It starts out broad but eventually narrows to a single point. “You are trying to synthesise down to a single nub of insight,” he says. “What we do is very much about interpretation and hugely about trust. There are not too many industries where it is so much about trust.”

And sometimes it’s more than just sitting people down in a room for a chat. Dunstone has held groups in people’s houses over dinner. He might even take pictures of their bathrooms and gardens to develop a better idea of how people live. He has walked the streets of Adelaide with young men trying to get an idea about how they think, to try to break down some of the assumptions advertisers have of them. “We had one client who believed young guys all had web-enabled mobile phones, yet we had young guys telling us they were concerned about their SMS credits.”

Much of the article was quite well balanced, although there was a clear leaning away from the researcher and leaders failing to go with vision. The article also stated that ‘Government and Business don’t do anything without a focus group. Where’s the leadership?’ After almost 20 years experience in market research I’d say that most decisions are made on gut feel and instinct without any solid consumer understanding.

How can Square Holes help?
How can we help?

This may sound fine until you think about the waste in strategies, communications, money etc by getting it fundamentally wrong. The key to any communication is ‘if you’re not relevant you’re invisible.’ How can a leader achieve this if they are making judgments based on the assumption that their views are representative of others? Good decisions aren’t based on a leader’s inner circle – management, friends, family etc – but on the ‘real’ person, consumer, audience, customer … . It’s great to be brave and bold, but there needs to be some substance rather than pure blind faith. Often too much is at stake.

There are clearly inappropriate ways to use focus groups and other forms of research. Many would argue the recent Federal Election was a case in point of lack of confidence in own judgment – hence the cliffhanger outcome. Leaders should use research for illumination and guidance not direction. As advertising guru from many, many years ago David Ogilvy famously said “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.” Nothing has changed. Research is the foundation on which great strategy is built – solid and strong. Leaders can build on this with confidence, yet they still need to make decisions – sometimes popular, sometimes not, but atleast they are aware of the reality.

I fear that there is much confusion and even fear of market research including focus groups. From my perspective, many of the anti views are naive and outdated. Research has progressed massively over the past 10 years, and is constantly doing so. New approaches allow new and improved ways to understand the consumer.

The final paragraph in the SA Weekend article left me bewildered …

“Yet many remain sceptical. Many would also like to see more leadership and imagination from elected officials and corporations untainted by the filtering process of focus groups. At the University of Adelaide Pascale Quester remains resolutely unconvinced. “It’s six or 10 people round a table, it’s a discussion in a café, it’s overhead chit-chat on a train. If politicians turn to focus groups in order to devise their strategy it means they have no ideas of their own, no ideology of their own, no underlying principles.”

I’m fine to discuss and debate of the merit of focus groups. My concern is that there still seems to be a level of ignorance of how they are conducted and the value. This is particularly concerning when the views are by those directing our future marketers. What chance do they have? From my perspective, you simply cannot construct solid marketing strategy without solid market research – otherwise the assumptions are too unknown.

It is also worth noting that just like any product or service, there is good and not so good market research. To achieve solid outcomes requires a skilled professional. While anyone may be able to pull a focus group together, it takes someone with appropriate experience, qualifications and aptitude to be able to do so with any substance or strategic value. That’s why the truly insightful focus group moderators are still doing it 10-20+ years later. There is a unique skill-set to get to the heart of consumers. Some researchers will never get there, and just because you are a personable fellow, strong thinker or good in meetings doesn’t qualify you as a strong researcher. Just like enjoying advertising doesn’t make you a guru.

I’m a fan of the ‘IDEA,’ as I am of ‘CREATIVITY,’ yet both need to be built on substance. The ‘best’ and most creative idea that fails to connect is simply NOT the best nor creative.

One still overused quote from more than 100 years ago that drivers me insane is “if I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse” [Henry Ford]. My problem with this is it reveals the fundamental confusion of most people anti market research. Market research is not about asking people what they want, it’s about understanding who they are. It is the role of leaders to take this true understanding and formulating ideas, strategies, policies, products, advertising or whatever based on more than blind faith.

Full article:


  1. Without market research we’re all in danger of assuming our own (subjective) opinion is an accurate guide to what others want. That’s almost as affective as using the pokies as your main income stream. PS Always was a McEnroe fan 😉

Comments are closed.