Why You Shouldn’t Invite Consumers to a Focus Group

If you want to know your target consumers, don’t invite them to a focus group.

If you want to feel empathy for your target consumers, don’t invite them to a focus group.

If you want to tell a story about your target consumers, don’t invite them to a focus group.

Why not?

  • They are going to an unfamiliar place to hang out with people they don’t know.
  • They might get to speak for 15 minutes each … out of 2 hours.
  • They are asked to accurately disclose their detailed behaviours based on recall.
  • They are people, not just consumers. Theirs lives are big, complex stories. Every brand they choose is part of their larger life story.

If you want to be part of your target consumers’ life and you don’t fully understand their life story, chances are … you’re going to fail. Before we discuss a better research approach, let’s be clear about focus groups. I moderate focus groups, and yes … there is a role for focus groups.


  • If you want feedback from your target consumers to an idea, new product or service, invite them to a focus group.
  • If you want to know the opinions of your target consumers about your brand, invite them to a focus group.
  • If you want to understand the rational decision making process of your target consumer, invite them to a focus group.

Overall, focus groups are a very convenient research methodology.

  • Consumers are gathered together in one place.
  • You get to see and listen to their unfiltered reactions and comments.
  • You can invite internal stakeholders and agency partners to observe.

However, going to a focus group is like going to the zoo, except there are people on the other side of the glass. While I would encourage every marketer to see and hear the voice of their consumers, it’s not the same as observing them in their natural habitat. After all, you wouldn’t substitute a week long safari in the Serengiti with an afternoon trip to the local zoo.

If you really want to get to know your target consumer, then …

  • Go to their home
  • Observe them in natural surroundings
  • Discover their belief systems
  • See how they live
  • See what is important in their life
  • See how they interact and communicate with others
  • See what their human needs are
  • See what their passion points are
  • See what media they consume
  • See what cultural trends influence them
  • See what products they buy
  • See how they use products
  • See the role of your brand in their life
  • Go shopping with them
  • Connect with them
  • Earn their trust

Then they will show, share and tell you so much more than you will ever get from a focus group. So let’s channel our inner Jane Goodall and get into the natural habitat of your target consumers with ethnographic research.



Ethnographic research is one of the original forms of behavioural science. Anthropological ethnography involves sending a researcher to a specific cultural or social setting to observe and record human behaviour (or chimpanzee behaviour in the case of Jane Goodall).

Meanwhile, market research ethnography involves sending a researcher into a specific consumer environment (such as a home, store, restaurant, doctor’s office) to observe and ask specific questions to understand human needs, motivations and experiences related to a specific product or service.

Good ethnographic research …

  • Observes what the target consumer does and listens to what they say.
  • Reveals behaviours that may not be shared or recalled in a focus group.
  • Records and narrates what is happening in the life of the target consumer without applying influence on what is being observed.
  • Observes the details of everyday experiences, while simultaneously thinking about the bigger picture in which those events are happening (think back to the big, complex life story that your brand wants to be part of).
  • Generates empathy for what it’s like to be in the shoes of the target consumer without losing objectivity.
  • Illuminates data and insights from other sources with greater richness, context and clarity.

By understanding the world of your target consumer, you’ll become more fluent and relevant within their world. Some examples of marketing outcomes you can expect from ethnographic research:


Some disadvantages of ethnographic research to be aware of:

  • Time consuming
  • Logistically complex
  • Sample size is typically smaller
  • Number of stakeholder attendees is limited
  • Travel may be required

However, the advantages of ethnographic research are strong and unique:

  • Gets into the world of the target consumer
  • Gain deep understanding of the target consumer as a person and as a consumer
  • Rich compilation of real time behaviours
  • More organic insights
  • Ability to connect “what they say” and “what they do” and identify areas of incongruence
  • Hi-fidelity video to capture insights

The next time you really need to know your target consumer and want to be able to tell a story about them, invite them to ethnographic research. As a researcher, I can declare that I’ve never been disappointed by the immersive experience and rich outcomes of ethnographic research.

2019-08-19T23:32:12+00:00 Innovation, Strategy|