Skip to main content
Marketing StrategyBrandingDestination Marketing

Focus groups don’t work. Do this instead.

It’s been said that focus groups are where great ideas go to die, and I agree. If your goal is to develop a brand or marketing campaign that’s devoid of personality or interest, then a focus group is the place to send it. Working under the assumption that we typically don’t want that result, you’re better off taking a different approach.

First, let’s go over some of the many reasons why focus groups don’t work.

Reason #1: People will lie to you.

There are a ton of reasons why your participants will be dishonest, either intentionally or subconsciously. People often lie about why they do things, confusing what they would ideally do with what they actually do. This is often unintentional and results from us always wanting to be our better selves.

Participants will also make up reasons to justify their opinions to themselves and say what they think the moderators – or other members of the group – want to hear. Often, they contradict themselves in the process.

People will often pretend to be someone they’re not. To some degree or another, we all want to be better people. We want to be seen as better people than we actually are. Our answers to questions in a focus group setting are a prime example of this in action.

Reason #2: People fear the unknown.

Very seldom will you assemble a group of target customers that are excited about doing things differently than what they’re used to. They’ll be far less inclined to make judgments based on the end result; instead, they’ll judge based on familiarity. And the more familiarity they want, the less originality is left in the project.

Reason #3: Motivations don’t often align with your goal.

If you offer compensation for a participant’s time – be it a Starbucks gift card, a spa day, whatever – then that compensation has already polluted the outcome of their participation. They’re only attending to get their reward and the outcome you’re looking for isn’t even a consideration. The participant’s purpose is more likely to get in and out of there and on with their lives – not aligned with what you hope to achieve.

Reason #4: Ideas are no longer shaped by experts. 

We’re marketing professionals because we’re wired to come up with new ideas and think differently while adhering to best practices. By putting the fate of a campaign in the hands of people that are unfamiliar with the big picture and marketing experience, what kind of effect do you expect to come up with?

Also, the focus group’s decisions are emotional and not tied to any rationale. A brand, website, ad campaign, whatever is developed with specific outcomes in mind. Your focus group simply doesn’t have the sophistication to take all those things into account.


What can you do instead of focus groups?

Market research tools and methods are seemingly endless, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Surveys are good, one-on-one interviews are helpful, but what if you could get your customers’ feedback without asking for it? If you could learn their preferences by simply observing them going about their lives, wouldn’t that be the closest you could get to the truth?

Solution #1: Social Listening

Social listening is the practice of collecting online mentions of your brand, or your product, competitor, etc., and reviewing unbiased opinions from people that don’t think that the brand is paying attention. Social listening tools have been around for some time and a good platform is going to cost some money, but it is well worth it.

Some examples of social listening tools include Brand24 and BrandMentions. With the latter, you can do sentiment analysis, which uses AI to organize mentions by mood. For example, if you have a resort and want to know what complaints people have, you would just look at the conversations labeled as “negative”.

This can be far more accurate in determining the thoughts of your audience because it’s unsolicited and monitored from a distance.

Solution #2: Behavioral Analysis Tools

By now, we should all have Google Analytics or an equivalent installed on our websites. And they’re helpful to a point. But where it falls short is in showing how your website or other owned assets are being used on the front end.

Enter heatmapping. Tools like Hotjar and Crazy Egg will show you how people interact with your content. You can see how far down pages people will scroll, how long they’ll spend on certain areas of pages, and a ton of other insights.



We’re beyond the time of needing to ask people what their preferences and priorities are. We can now find them out for ourselves in ways that are unintrusive and far more meaningful – and we can do it at scale. So, let’s do ourselves a favor and leave the idea of focus groups where it belongs – in the past.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

© 2004-2023, Imagine. All rights reserved, whatever that means...