Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups

Why don’t consumers tell the truth about what they want?

Here’s a paradox: Fifty million Americans have registered for the national Do Not Call list, suggesting they don’t want to be bothered by telemarketers and won’t buy if they are. Yet telemarketers want to keep calling them. Why? Because the marketers realize that what consumers say they want and what they actually do are not the same: Those who don’t want to be called actually buy from telemarketers when they are called. This evidence of consumer untrustworthiness got Moneybox thinking about focus groups. If consumers lie, what good are focus groups?

Evidence suggests focus group participants often lie. “The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative,” writes Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in his influential book How Customers Think. After all, he notes, 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots—virtually all of which are screened by focus groups—routinely fail in the marketplace.

Focus groups have become a requirement of everything from product launches to political campaigns. But even though few in the industry question their value, a huge gap yawns between customer intentions expressed in focus groups and behavior in the marketplace.

There are several reasons for this. Start with the participants. Sure, they’re all volunteers and presumably well-disposed to the process. But psychological reasons exist that could lead them to say one thing in the confines of a windowless conference room and do another thing at the mall. Moneybox has participated in a few focus groups—and has talked to several people who conduct them. And it seems clear that the motivations of those who show up are varied. Some come because they need the cash, not because they have a deep desire to express their consumer preferences. Others come for the cookies and punch or for the opportunity to interact with other humans. Still others—including Moneybox—spend a lot of time trying to suss out precisely who is doing the testing.

A small percentage of focus group participants may indeed lie maliciously—although it takes a particularly devious criminal mind to go to such lengths to mislead marketers. More participants are simply eager to please. They’re getting paid and fed or might have a crush on the moderator. So, they might tell her—and the marketing types behind the one-way mirror—what they think they want to hear, rather than what they really think.

What’s more, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a worse environment for eliciting heartfelt and brutally honest opinions. Getting paid to get together with a bunch of strangers, and being led in a discussion by another stranger, is unnatural. In their book Qualitative Interviewing, Herbert Rubin and Irene Rubin note that focus group leaders don’t have time to build trust, which is a precondition for eliciting the true feelings of participants. If the discussion turns to controversial issue—like race or women’s role in the workplace—many might feel a powerful impulse to self-censor or give politically correct rather than completely honest answers.

Another conceptual flaw: Focus groups frequently ask people to make snap judgments about products they haven’t seen or used. “When you ask somebody a question, they’ll have an opinion,” said Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner of the Context-Based Research Group. “And they may know absolutely nothing about it, or have never experienced it. It’s abstracted from their reality.” (Rather than conduct focus groups, Context focuses on fieldwork. Brinkoff and his colleagues watch people using products in their natural habitats. Think Margaret Mead in New Rochelle, not New Guinea.)

Gerald Zaltman agrees. Because focus groups don’t reflect experience but rather hypothetical choices, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, they are not effective when developing and evaluating new product ideas, testing ads, or evaluating brand images.”

But he goes a step further. The real reason people may seem to “lie” to focus groups is that they simply don’t know what they want. Nor can they readily conceive what they want. “Standard questioning can sometimes reveal consumers’ thinking about familiar goods and services if those thoughts and feelings are readily accessible and easily articulated,” Zaltman writes. But that’s a huge “if.” “Most of the thoughts and feelings that influence consumers’ and managers’ behavior occur in the unconscious mind.” Not irrational, but unconscious.

“Unconscious thoughts are the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do,” Zaltman said in an interview. “In the space of 5 or 10 minutes in a focus group, which is the average airtime per person, you can’t possibly get at one person’s unconscious thinking.”

So, why do focus groups remain so popular? They are time-honored mechanisms with clearly defined costs and that produce data in a specific time frame. Perhaps most important, they can be used to validate initiatives or concepts that the people commissioning the focus groups have already invested vast resources and time in. Typically, Hollywood focus-groups endings of films or completed pilots—not screenplays and development pitches. Ad agencies tend to focus-group a few ideas they have brainstormed and then report to the client which one scored best. The primary function of focus groups is often to validate the sellers’ own beliefs about their product. Focus groups, which are supposed to explore the psychological needs of consumers, may serve as much to fulfill the psychological needs of sellers.