Monthly Archives: May 2014

Long Live Focus Groups!

By Naomi Henderson


Last week I read with some interest a Research Access article titled, Are Focus Groups an Endangered Species?” As a seasoned, long time moderator, (having led more than 6,000 focus groups since 1978), a trainer of moderators, and an author, I am obviously quite alarmed at the idea that focus groups should be considered a dinosaur or endangered species.

I will wholeheartedly agree that all focus groups don’t work – they can go wrong for a number of reasons and they can be misused by observers. However, every industry has some flukes; the car industry continues to make cars even though some cars are lemons. They don’t stop making cars because some of them are not working as designed.

The first focus groups were held in America in 1937. In the three-quarters of a century since those first groups, focus groups have undergone a number of transformations as a research methodology as outlined in the chart below:

Chart for 5-28-14


The qualitative research game changed a lot over the last seven decades and with the advent of additional technologies, even more adaptations will continue to be made in the qualitative arena.

Every now and then an article comes out in the press entitled: “Is God Dead?” and it goes on to report issues around the moral decay in the world. Those articles seldom report the growth of church membership in times of crisis, the role that religion plays in handling stress, or how religion provides millions with a moral center to face the challenges of a modern world. In the same way, one should be careful in reading a report on the “death of focus groups” as there is always another side to every story. I believe focus groups are, in fact, thriving and will continue to be applied to new situations over the coming years.

Many arguments against focus groups result from a misunderstanding of the limits of focus group qualitative research.

The argument of Inherent bias: I completely agree that there exists a bias in focus groups and that respondents may sway each other. But a skilled moderator knows how to set a context for avoiding bias. Many believe that the purpose of a focus group is to reach consensus…wrong, on every count. Focus groups with 8 participants, handled correctly, can achieve eight different points of view! There is never a reason to reach consensus in a focus group.

The very nature of focus groups is their subjective biases: convenience samples, paid respondents, and a fixed line of questions. So you may wonder, what’s the point? Because what counts in life, cannot be counted. Try to scale or measure love, patriotism, or brand loyalty. Try to count up a tally of what it means to own a dog or keep a Ford Mustang for 40 years. What counts, cannot be quantified and hearing that information trumps any biases that might be present.

The argument of Small sample sizes: There is never a reason to project the findings of 24, 36, or 48 people in focus groups to a universe and make a quantitative summary. The whole point of focus groups is to understand language, motivators, drivers, perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which then can go into the development of quantitative surveys where projections can be made.

To call “small sample sizes” a fault of focus groups is to misunderstand the role of qualitative research. Quantitative research asks the questions, qualitative research questions the answers and provides insights that help decision-makers see the whole picture. Any client that would make a marketing decision based on 30 people is delusional and any moderator who supports that thinking is misguided at best and harmful at worst. Qualitative and quantitative research are like two sides of a hand. The quant is the back where the bones and sinews can be easily seen. The soft palm is qual research that possesses the ability to hold something with care. Both are critical to the whole picture of market research.

The argument of Time consuming and expensive to do it right. Yes, qualitative research takes time and is expensive – I have no argument with that premise. I also know that some of the finer things in life take time and cost a lot of money. A good example is aged whiskey. Moonshine can be made in one day and aged one night. But a good single malt scotch, aged 12 years or more, is smooth and satisfying. A lump of coal burns fast and hot, but that same lump pressed under tons of earth for centuries will turn into a diamond and is priceless. Qualitative research takes time but when you know how the target market thinks, you can sell more products and services. In the long run, a little more time with consumers at the front end of a process can send huge dividends to the bottom line.


Naomi writes more about her experiences as a Master Moderator in her book, Secrets of a Master Moderator.

Tagged , , , ,

Notes from the Director: The Benefit of a Trained In-house Kid and Teen Moderator

RIVA Director, Amber Tedesco, shares from her experiences as a project manager and director of a successful qualitative research company. 

We talk about how kids are our future all the time. The role of kids/teens has changed over the past decade and they have become the partial decision-maker in a lot of households.   Since kids/teens interact with so much – consumer goods, electronics, automobiles, almost everything adults do – it’s a good idea for companies to make sure they get their view point in their marketing research.

If you’ve ever tried to interview a kid/teen you know it’s not the same as interviewing adults. As Pam Goldfarb Liss mentioned in her blog article, the group size and length are different, questions are phrased differently, sessions are timed differently, even the food you serve isn’t the same.

As the director of RIVA, I have seen the benefits of having an in-house person trained to conduct kid/teen qualitative research sessions for their company.   There are those instances when the moderator that was hired for the work becomes ill last minute or has an issue which doesn’t allow them to conduct the sessions. By having an in-house person trained they could step in if needed and are able to work with outside moderators more effectively on the research design.

Since 2012 RIVA has offered a Kid/Teen moderating course that speaks directly to the differences moderators face and how to deal with those changes in qualitative research sessions.  This class is very small – only 4 to a class.  Our upcoming July 9-11, 2014 class has 2 open seats.  Registration is first come/first serve.

Tagged , , ,

From the Archives: Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

On Thursdays, we re-post an article from our archives. Good moderating principles never go out of style. 

Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

By Naomi Henderson

Originally Posted: 31 December 2012

Recently I’ve been thinking about principles related to the questions that I ask of respondents in focus groups.  I know to honor these rules:

  1. Write short questions
  2. Keep probes simple , direct, and relevant to what has been said
  3. Avoid leading questions

I’ve been focusing on asking the best question to get the data that my client needs for decision-making.  One of the areas that continues to be a challenge for me is what data I obtain when I ask each of these questions:

  1. What do you think of _____________________?
  2. What are your feelings about  _______________?

I known when I ask the first question, I’m looking for a rational response based on some “thought pattern” in the minds of respondents.  For example:

Q:  What do you think of the idea of a Starbucks that is only a tea salon?  [No coffee to be served.]

A:  I think that is a good idea for tea drinkers – they will think that is cool.

 A.  I think it won’t fly as a retail store, because there are so many more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers and you can already get a good cup of tea at a Starbucks.

 A.   I think that idea may work better in England than in the US.

 All the above are rational answers, based on a little bit of “thinking” about the question that was posed.  Probing  into any of the answers will help to get below “top-of-mind” responses from their original answers.

 However, when the question is phrased with the word “feelings”, answers don’t always come out as “emotions.”

Q: What are your feelings about Starbucks opening a tea only shop? [No coffee to be served.]

A.  I think that might work – there are more tea drinkers these days.

A: That might not work for Starbucks – they have an image as a “coffee place” —  and they have worked hard to set a certain standard in the coffee world.

A. I feel it is a poor idea for the US….maybe it would work in England.

Notice in the second set of questions about Starbucks Tea Salon when respondents were asked what they felt about the idea:  One person said “I think” and another gave a rational response rather than an emotional one and the final person used the word “feel” but the response was really what he/she was thinking.

Insight:  Simply adding the word “feel” to a question may not always lead to an emotion being expressed.  I’ve noticed that respondents have no trouble telling you what they think, but they don’t do such a good job telling you what they feel, just based on having that word in the question.

Best Practice: Before I write questions in this category, I ask myself:  “What do I want to know…their thinking and rational process or their emotions?”  

When the answer is the former:  I have no problem with a simple question that starts with “What are your thoughts about…….?”

However, when I want emotions I set up the category a bit more and then ask for emotions specifically.



Set Them Up: In a moment, I’ll be asking you some question’s that talk about feelings or emotions. Before I start with those questions tell me some emotions that anyone can experience in the course of a day; from rising in the morning to getting to work – working with colleagues or folks out in the world – getting back home, dealing with family members. I have ten fingers…give me some emotions that come to mind.”

Respondents often give these emotions:   anger, fear, joy, sadness, depression, excitement, love, panic, rage, lust, disgust, frustrated, etc.

Task: I then pick 2-3 of the common answers and ask:  “Where in your body, does that emotion often reside?”  I often pick anger and love and they typically say: “My stomach or my heart” as answers.

Next Step: At this point I then say:  “Great, you have the emotions down, now use what we just did to help get to the emotions that arise when I ask or show you _______________.”

Probing: Then I pose the questions related to feelings/emotions and they might sound like this:

1. What feelings/emotions do you associate with going to a car showroom and looking at different cars in which you have an interest in purchasing?

2. What is the first emotion/feeling that comes up when a salesman says: “We don’t carry that product in this hardware store.”

3. Tell me what you feel like inside when a boss says – “Your work is not up to our standards.”

Net Results: Once respondents have had a chance to see how easy it is to categorize feelings/emotions, they can then talk about those two elements quickly and allow the moderator to get below top-of-mind answers and avoid the risk to default back to “rational” answers.

Tagged , , , ,