What focus group cultures have you encountered?

Focus Group Blog.png

The qualitative focus group remains a stalwart fixture of qualitative research. Despite many predictions of its impending demise because of online research, in-home-interviews, big data, etc., the focus group is alive and well.

I’ve been running focus groups for more than 20 years in the UK and Australia mostly, and I’m still a fan - at least for some types of project. Focus groups have their drawbacks for sure (goldfish bowl effects, differences between what people say and what they do, group effects, posturing, to name just a few). Yet for certain types of project such as creative development research or brand positioning research, I’d argue it’s hard to beat a well-run focus group. You can engage quite intensely with a bunch of consumers, talk to them, show them stuff, bounce ideas around, feel the level of engagement, hear them, and (importantly for me at least) see the whites of their eyes.

I’m also an ethnographer. So I’m interested in the culture of things and the shared values and norms that exist, and how these vary in different cultures and milieus. Norms affect our expectations and ‘frame’ our perceptions. I’ve noticed (and you may have too) that expectations around what a focus group is, and how it ‘should’ be run vary quite a bit: certainly from country to country, and perhaps in other ways too.

I recently did a project for a Japanese client in Australia on behalf of a large multinational research company. Talking with the Japanese project leader she mentioned that the norms in terms of running focus groups in Japan includes giving all respondents equal ‘airtime’ and perhaps even making sure that all group members are specifically given the opportunity to answer all the key questions (And what do you think about this Jean?….). Interestingly this presented something of a challenge to some of our Australian participants who had experienced a more free-form style of focus group in the past. They tended to jump in and answer for others even though the question might have been specifically addressed elsewhere.

So it got me thinking about the norms of focus groups in different cultures and how this affects what a focus group is (not judging here, just noticing interesting differences).

So on reflection, I recognize a typical UK style of focus group (the kind I was first trained in) tends to have 6-8 people in it, moderation style is quite informal with discussion guides being more of a overview guide and questions by the moderator are re-interpreted and re-expressed to try to achieve a more colloquial, informal conversation and perhaps try to get more naturalistic, spontaneous responses from participants. Yonks ago, these groups often happened in a recruiter’s home, nowadays not so much.

By contrast, I’d suggest that US style focus groups are often more formalized with a closer adherence to the discussion guide with a nod perhaps to the idea of repeatability and consistency. Moderators are more closely connected to stakeholders, perhaps even via headphones or an earpiece. I’d argue that the feel of the groups is different (I’ve only watched some though, never moderated in the USA, so I’m no expert on USA focus groups and your mileage may vary).

When I worked years ago on a multinational advertising development research project involving agencies across Europe, the UK and the US, we had a grand teleconference debrief where all the agencies presented a summary of the findings. I remember being struck by how ‘psychologically framed’ some of the interpretations from a couple of the European agencies were (and I have trained in psychotherapy). It struck me that this was a reflection of their norms of what a qualitative analysis was.

Of course individual moderators all have their own individual styles, but I’d suggest that some different norms about focus groups exist at a more macro level in different cultures. So I wonder what differences in focus group norms have you observed – either in different countries, cultures or perhaps in different industries.