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Women's Focus Groups: Eight Traps to Avoid

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Qualitative market research doesn't work.

It doesn't work if you don't read it. It doesn't work if your company has a merry go round of brand managers suffering from raging cases of "Not Invented Here" syndrome. It doesn't work if you've delegated it to the most junior team member or outsider.

Qualitative market research works only if you are truly listening. Munching on gourmet food while sequestered behind the focus group mirror doesn't count.

I refer to "focus groups" as the "F word," because beyond the sterile environment and stale potato chips that are served to your target audience, marketers don't give the group their full attention. This wastes money, talent and time.

True listening is hard work and requires uncompromising discipline. Your organization has to believe that customers are important and must place a priority on translating research into action.


This is particularly true when you are trying to learn from women, who are uniquely wired to be good talkers and problem solvers. They tend to articulate solutions that are good for humans, not just for themselves, and are generous with their time and ideas.

When you are drowning in numbers from your quantitative efforts, talk to women to gain clarity. Remember: women make or influence over 80% of all consumer purchases. So, they are basically your boss. You listen to your boss, right?

There are eight traps to beware of during qualitative research. If you hear yourself saying any of the following, you should stop for an immediate reality check:

1. "She's not our customer"

Let's face it, many marketers are delusional. They imagine that the women who use their products are all smart, good looking and young. I've met plenty who would also add "rich" to this list.

In reality, then, there is a complete disconnect. While I was doing research for a financial institution, a client nearly demanded to see the pay stub of a woman deemed far too slovenly to be qualified for the research. Turns out she had inherited a railroad and was a whiz with money markets.

This happens often in the beauty category. I was relieved when Sex in the City went off the air. Clients stopped thinking that every single woman was Carrie Bradshaw, which incidentally would have been bad, since she was in terrible debt and was barely employed part time. (All was good, for a minute—until the debut of Desperate Housewives, and now all single mothers look like Teri Hatcher….)

2. "The moderator didn't get to..."

Rigid discussion guides for research sessions are a colossal mistake. Certainly the research leader has to have an outline of areas to cover, but a script is a disaster.

I recently reviewed a tape of a focus group. The group was about black pants—two hours about black pants. The moderator was really lovely, and every time that I sensed she was getting to an area of real insight... it was like she was Tasered from the back room to get back to her list of black pants questions. They missed the real opportunities, because they stifled the natural rhythm of women's conversations.

3. "They don't know what they want"

You are probably right on this one. The women in the groups shouldn't be expected to do your job. It is still the marketer's job to present provocative ideas for them to consider. It is unfair to think that women can invent something that you and your research and development team haven't been able to.

They can, however, offer you rich insight into why an idea will or won't fit into their life. The woman in the group can also offer you a view into how she gets through her daily life so that you can actually develop products that make sense.

4. "They are just saying what they think we want to hear"

Do you blame them? Wouldn't you? Being liked is a much better way to spend two hours.

This is where your choice of moderator comes in. You need to work with a professional who is at ease in your category so she can approach questions from different viewpoints. It also helps if the moderator feels comfortable asking "do you really mean that?" to challenge answers that seem too earnest or unnecessarily politically correct.

5. "She's a professional"

So what if she goes to groups a lot? If she legitimately meets the screening requirements, it shouldn't matter that she was at a group the day before about another topic. It is the marketer's job to design a discussion outline that is interesting and engaging.

6. "What did we learn?" (usually asked within seconds of the group ending)

Snap judgments are for amateurs. Naturally, there will be first reactions to what you have heard, but it is crucial that the team try an exercise in deliberate and independent thinking: place a moratorium on discussion until each person can deliver a top line (best if you can wait a day).

7. "We already knew this"

Well, then why didn't you do anything about it? If you keep hearing the same themes in your qualitative and quantitative research and you haven't changed anything about your products or services, then what are you waiting for?

8. "My wife always says that"

This one is simple. Why don't you start listening to her?

* * *

Break the glass and dare to sit in the room where the research is happening. Don't take copious notes. Rather, sit quietly and listen.

Take heed not to shake your head when one of the participants disagrees with your favorite idea. Try a smile every now and then. She has given you her time (albeit for a small fee); the least you can do is be interested in her life. Remember, she pays your salary.


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Jen Drechsler is the co-director of brand consulting for Just Ask a Woman (www.justaskawoman.com), a marketing consultancy specializing in women's consumer behavior. She is based in New York, NY.

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  • by Susan Abbott Wed Jan 28, 2009 via web

    Nice article. I especially liked 6, 7, and 8.
    it is common for clients to have preconceptions about their customers, and anything that can immerse them more in the customer's world -- jar people out of stereotype thinking -- is a good thing.

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