Wanted: X-Ray Vision for Focus Groups

For as far back as we can remember, focus groups have been the go-to market research tool to gather insights to guide new product innovation. The problem is that, while human nature has remained for hundreds of years, the 21st century consumer is significantly more complex than any predecessor, motivated by both conscious and unconscious needs spawned by integration into a digital planet.

And with only 20% of new products actually succeeding in the market, there is now a highly compelling imperative to insure that beyond listening, marketers get inside the heads of consumers to harvest the unarticulated – and often unrealized – true tastes and values around new products.

So today, innovation teams must discover consumer empathy well beyond WHAT consumers say to reveal WHY they feel the way they do. In darkened observation rooms everywhere, we talk endlessly about the WHYs, all the while harboring a nascent, nagging feeling that something’s just not quite clicking.

And so the industry has created a number of focus group derivatives and alternatives. One-on-ones. Triads. Ethnography. Online platforms. Mobile. All promise to get to the coveted WHYs. And yet, 80% of new product introductions continue to sputter along, and only 25% earn $7.5 million in sales with only 1.1% earning $50 million.

But there’s an answer. Keep doing focus groups. Because, just as with consumer sentiment, it’s not WHAT you do, it’s WHY it’s not delivering the goods in terms of insights that drive innovation that sticks.

For starters, focus groups – or research of any kind – is not an ideal format by which get to the real and unarticulated preferences of consumers. The groups are too controlled, too inorganic. Human beings have this compulsive need to please, so most times, those participating in focus groups just want to be helpful. Even at the hands of a skilled moderator, they end up crafting the most advantageous response rather than sharing their true feelings, then collecting their $100 and returning to their lives. It’s not a criticism on research professionals, it’s psychology.

But a more fundamental reason traditional market research often falls short is that humans have very little insight into why we do what we do. We simply are not physiologically capable of recognizing the cognitive processes that compel everything from interpersonal relationships to decisions in the detergent aisle.

So in research, the information they present when approached with a question becomes subjective. As one of our psychology cohorts, Dr. Art Markman puts it, a person rationalizing his/her behavior is akin to a third party describing his/her rationale. From a cognitive standpoint, either would yield the same degree of accuracy (which is not much).

According to a McKinsey study developed in 2006, “consumers are notoriously poor at articulating needs or benefits beyond those they have already experienced.” This can be attributed to this lack of emotional awareness and subjectivity in assessing their own behaviors.

When seeking to find those deeply felt needs that drive innovation that works, brands simply must improve and deepen their focus to better understand the innate hard-wiring of consumer decision making.

So it’s not the venues that are broken. After all, that’s all a focus group, tablet app, or in-home visit is: a venue through which to interact with consumers. It’s the fact that we keep asking the questions in the same way and expecting different answers. That’s the issue.

For your next project, consider a following three principles to help tap a deeper level of consumer understanding.

No. 1: Don’t recruit people based on what they do – recruit them based on how likely they are to do something new.

Every research screener looks the same, capturing a litany of demographic information, followed by a raft of questions on what types of products a respondent uses now. It’s all WHATs.

But the world of psychology yields gifts that, leveraging subconscious personality markers called the Central Six, empower us to identify those people that are likely to adopt new product and behaviors, and those who aren’t. By finding felt needs with those early adopters, much more strategic innovation can be created with greater confidence that launches will stick in the real world.

No. 2: Don’t ask them questions they can’t answer.

Remember the point about a person’s self assessment being no more accurate than an assessment by another person? No matter how many clever ways you ask the same question, the human brain is not capable of accurately answering.

But don’t despair. Whether within a focus group room, a smartphone screen, or an online setting, deeper insights can be revealed. Forcing choice from among new potential offerings and current ones can help bring the suspended reality of research into more tangible – and reliable – context. In other words, don’t ask them if they’d buy your new idea. Put it against its competition and have them select one or the other. This can be done on anything from wiz bang hi-def virtual walls to smartphones to 80# sheets of 11x17 paper.

Another useful insight tool lies in emerging technologies that enable neuromonitoring. A handful of techniques and devices are now available to reveal what a person thinks without ever saying a word. While these techniques require a high level of expertise to interpret the data, they authentically get at true subconscious emotions traditional techniques cannot.

No. 3: Follow the markers.

Psychologists, neuroscientists and parents of teens agree that the vast majority of communication is transmitted non-verbally. Without realizing it, your brain processes an avalanche of small details in forming emotional reactions to everything from a prospective mate to a new kind of cereal.

Social media has amplified the breadth and speed at which and individual can create the“markers” that communicate what makes him or her tick, regardless of what he or she says. And while it’s difficult to codify this wealth of non-verbal markers, it’s something we humans innately experience.

To complement concerted market research, immerse yourself in the tribe of people you seek to understand. Hit the mall. Go to a farmers market. Surf Facebook pages. It sounds kind of touchy-feely, but from a neuroscience perspective, we know that your brain will be busily collecting, netting, and averaging empathy. Your right and left hemispheres will process all these markers – especially when you’re not thinking about it – and you’ll simply find that you “get” these people better than ever. You’ll feel empathy that, often times, gets relegated to focus group written reports. And your outcomes will be better.

Just as the marketing and insights world has matriculated beyond the WHAT to seek the WHY, don’t seek innovative gold with merely the latest WHAT in terms of research technique. Use the wiring-guide of human emotions to ask different questions. You’ll find the WHYs are abundant – even in focus groups.

Hunter Thurman is the founder of Thriveplan, the innovation lab that works to create new product success for consumer brands.