The Makings of a Good Focus Group

January 28, 2012 − by Jeff Bierer − in Articles of Interest − No Comments

A well-run focus group is a laboratory for social interaction. A good focus group requires four simple characteristics: the proper composition, an open environment, a probing moderator, and in-depth analysis.

The composition of the focus group must be selected strategically, with homogeneity as the key to a successful session. Human behavioral studies have consistently proven that people will reveal their innermost thoughts only to those they believe share a common bond.

For example, if your goal is to study the real, in-depthfeelings of whites and blacks toward affirmative action, welfare, or crime, you cannot have an integrated focus group. Similarly, women will not talk freely and emotionally about abortion if men (including a male moderator) are present. This is just a fact of life.

The mood of the group is also critical. A single dominant voice can cripple open, honest discussion by intimidating the other participants. Also, keep food outside the focus group room. This has nothing to do with the potential for a food fight. Continuing participant attention to food is an unnecessary and ill-advised distraction.

But the single greatest component of a successful focus group is the moderator. Academics have been justifiably critical of many focus group practitioners because they lack one or more of the following characteristics:

• a creative mind
• analytical skills
• verbal skills
• intellectual ability
• an eye for detail
• a tolerance for disorder
• listening skills
• a capacity for empathy

Being a “good listener” is not enough to moderate a focus group properly. Remarkably few political focus group moderators have been academically or professionally trained to stimulate thorough but balanced discussion in an unbiased fashion.

Similarly, all too often, focus group moderators put pressure on respondents to give information that they just do not have. The fact is, voters are ill-informed about the intricate details of public policy, and the loudest and most emotional respondent often knows the least about what he or she is talking about. A professional focus group moderator knows how to keep such an individual from intimidating and biasing the other participants.

Even with the “right” participants, a good environment, and a trained moderator, the eventual success of focus group research in developing political strategy is fully dependent on the analysis. The question every focus group user needs to ask is: Who analyzes the transcripts? Too often, the dialogue is poured over not by behavioral scientists or by experts in sociology but by low level political types who know tactics but not people. This can lead to misinterpretation of comments, false conclusions and, eventually, flawed recommendations and strategy.

State-Of-The-Art Qualitative Techniques
Imagine the power of being able to measure instantly and specifically the exact reaction to a political theme, message, or messenger—second-by-second, by target population subgroups. That power now exists.

In the post-Reagan era, most politicians have understood the importance of harnessing verbal and visual imagery in their effort to affect voter attitudes and opinions. Roughly one-half of President Clinton’s annual $2 million polling budget is targeted toward communication, and it shows with every speech and public appearance. Bill Clinton “feels your pain” because he actually knows what your pain is.

Clinton’s not-so-secret (and not-so-new) weapon is a technology called “instant response,” which combines the most important components of quantitative, qualitative, and in-depth public opinion research to test message delivery, understanding, believability, and impact. A computer-based system, the instant response technology specializes in the immediate, second-to-second measurement of voter reaction to a speech, debate, or political advertisement.

Here’s how it works:

Participants are gathered in a single room for a two- to three-hour session. Each participant uses a button- or dial-operated hand-held computer, roughly the size and weight of a small paperback book, to relay his or her immediatereaction to a video or televised appearance. A portable PC collects and records these responses in real time, along with demographic information and customized quantitative close-ended opinion.

During the presentation, a line graph is displayed continuously on a monitor adjacent to the PC. Audience reactions are gathered literally second-by-second, enabling the pollster to determine exactly which words, phrases, gestures, and other visuals enhance the communication effort, and which should be altered or abandoned.

For example, George Bush used an instant response system to test “ad-libs” prior to his 1988 debate appearances, and Bill Clinton learned that his mannerisms and statements tested better before a live audience than they did straight to camera.

The intensive focus groups following the session answer the question “why” and “how,” thus providing confirmation and strategic guidance.

Focus group research is the least financially profitable tool of the polling trade, but it may be the most powerful. Political types may have been the last to discover its power, but nothing breeds attention more than success. Every candidate wants to win, and as they become aware of the qualitative option, its usage will continue to grow. Focus group influence is undeniable even today. As media guru Roger Ailes concluded, “When I die, I want to come back with real power. I want to come back as a member of a focus group.”


Motivational Factors

Focus groups are best used to explain “why” the public feels the way it does. A properly constructed and administered focus group will draw out the “motivational factors” behind the “top of mind” opinions — which is critical to understanding what is driving public opinion.

The Real Problems

 This figure illustrates the current motivational factors for the simple question: “What is the most important problem facing America today?” In telephone polls, rarely do more than 2% or 3% of those surveyed ever cite any of the three factors themselves. However, using traditional statistical analysis and an adjusted conjoint interviewing technique in focus group research, these three attitudes explain the fundamental motivational factors of more than 80% of Americans.

• “Declining quality of life” explains public concern about health care, the economy, the deficit, taxes, and unemployment.

• “Disintegration of morality in society” is the primary motivational factor behind concern about crime, drugs, welfare, and immigration.

• “The break-up of the American family” is the fear most associated with the problems in education, and to a lesser extent, crime, drugs, and welfare.

— Frank I. Luntz