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Focus groups, insights and the truth: piecing it all together

Technology & Data

Focus groups, insights and the truth: piecing it all together


Focus groups are the best way to get to know consumers – their fears, concerns, needs and motivations – firsthand. Ellen Baron shares how truth and genuine insights are uncovered, even beneath lies and half-truths.

To read more about best-practice approaches to gathering insights, download the latest issue of ‘Marketing Lens: Research and Insights’ »

Ellen BaronPeople hold back the truth for various reasons. It may not matter to them, they don’t want to disappoint, they may want to believe what they say is true. To get to the truth is to understand how consumers communicate and to establish the underlying motivations for lying or providing half-truths. This is where genuine insight emerges.

Have we uncovered a secret? Are we intruding on highly sensitive territory, or have we just caught the respondent in a lie told through nervousness, as a cover-up or because they genuinely want to help the study?

Populist books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow called into question the value of focus groups, especially when it comes to expressing consumer intentions and future purchase behaviours. This, however, is more about choosing focus groups for the wrong reasons. Focus groups are best used for building brands, ideas and communication, rather than simply validating them.

Focus groups remain the best way to know consumers firsthand – their needs, motivations, joys and concerns.

Peter Thiel talks about the value of secrets in building businesses. Qualitative research is a powerful way to uncover consumer secrets – things people don’t know about themselves or things they don’t want others to know – things observational research and big data cannot offer. It also has a power to help consumers reach self-awareness about what they fear, desire, want and need.

Participants often tell me how much they’ve learned in a group, not just about the category but about themselves. This is a result of giving them licence to share, feel and connect.


Secrets, lies and self-awareness

We know from qualitative diary work that consumers often eat more healthily when asked to report their daily food intake; their awareness is drawn to their consumption.

This is important.

Research is stigmatised for not being ‘truthful’ when using intervention tools, but the lesson here is about finding insight through self-awareness, rather than behavioural observation. Pre-group diaries can heighten respondents’ self-awareness, opening them up to greater honesty in a group.

The Johari window helps visualise how truth, honesty and secrets play out. It is incredibly useful for developing discussion guides and analysis plans.


johari window



The public self that we happily share and with which we feel most comfortable.

Time must be spent to help bond the group using storytelling, probing and bouncing techniques. Storytelling narratives are great for getting people to open up. Storytelling also benefits honesty as it is harder to sustain a lie in a longer narrative. Probing helps understand motivations and bouncing helps understand breadth – ‘Who else felt that way? Whose experience was different?’



Where the secrets lurk.

Social desirability biases and fear prevent people from sharing their deeply held views and desires. Different to asking a person directly, projection techniques remove onus or fear. Self-reporting tools like thought bubbles and ‘writing a letter to my teenage self’ allow consumers to open up by projecting their own undesirable feelings onto inanimate objects or unknown people.



A combination of visualisation tools, sensory and deprivation techniques help consumers come to terms with their actual behaviours.

Getting people to go a week without their favourite snacks or asking them to use your brand instead of their usual opens up the blind spot to new insights. The blind spot needs careful management, because it deals with what the respondent cannot see in themselves and this mostly leads to contradiction. Contradiction is not lying, but simply a case of self-awareness where we need to offer more of a learning experience: ‘Sally, earlier you seemed to feel very differently about this. What has changed for you?’



This is an area we can’t really impact. The key to the Johari window is to increase the openness and honesty as much as possible to drive better insight.



The confessional provides a space for people to reveal all.

It inspires truthfulness and comfort to ‘tell it like it is’, is flexible and can be designed with specifics in mind. Participants can be chosen for a range of reasons – the chattiest, the most withdrawn, the only woman etc. The aim is to validate and help punctuate key lessons.


Secret sinners circle

An online tool allows people to divulge their most self-critical behaviours, narcissistic drivers and Machiavellian tendencies – things they are unlikely to divulge in a group discussion – before the session. This can help consumers be more honest as we ask them to tell a story about their most sinful purchase and why they chose it, or their last big binge and how much they enjoyed or hated it.


The keyboard confessional

Two respondents are provided with laptops and a platform allowing them to write answers to some key ‘truth’ questions. This helps inform analysis and can also be a way for marketers to ask a big question that has occurred to them at the end of the group.


The Tok Tekki confessional

Consumers are interviewed by a new moderator who may ask them to open up with a confession about the group: what did they hate about it? What was said or not said about the product, brand or ad? How truthful was the group overall? Who do they think lied about their answers?

And a final fact driven push – for example, ‘Fact: 90% of new products fail or get delisted. How does that make you feel about your answers now?’


Six ways to get the best out of focus groups

  1. Use them for the right purpose. They are great for understanding consumer needs, motivations, fears and concerns, less so for predicting future purchase intent.
  2. Don’t hand the moderator a laundry list of questions. Define key objectives and what you need for action. Focus groups are not a catch-all. The more questions, the more stimulus-response answers and potential untruths.
  3. Invest in great stimulus. Provocative headlines shake consumers out of default responses. Challenge their present category thinking.
  4. Get paid researchers involved. They are skilled in creating great stimulus. Getting the agency involved is costly and unlikely to help.
  5. Projective techniques demand time and licence to play. They don’t all work in the same way with the same people. Moderators will try one, and if it doesn’t work swap it out for the next group. The group is not lost if one component doesn’t work; there are always good lessons.
  6. Trust that your moderator is skilled in picking up on biases and self-awareness issues. These can be drivers of ‘untruthfulness’, but also of special secrets and shadow selves. While everyone lies, honesty is the default.


Ellen Baron is CEO, founding director and innovation thought leader at Ruby Cha Cha. Read more best-practice insights gathering tips in the latest issue of ‘Marketing Lens: Research and Insights.’




Image credit Cathy Yeulet © 123RF


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