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Learning how (not) to run focus groups from The Thick of It

April 10, 2012
Focus group equipment

I’ve written about governmental use of market research before in blog post Sir Humphrey Appleby’s guide to corrupt governmental research.  It’s something I am interested in as I have worked for the Scottish and UK Governments a fair few times in the past and I like to think they do their best to make good use of market research.

A great TV show about the comedic elements of the day-to-day running of government is The Thick of It: a contemporary look at the relationship between Ministers and those who advise them, much as Yes Minister was in its day.  There’s a lot more swearing in The Thick of It though.  Like a lot more.  And very creative swearing it is too.  So anyway, in the environment of government it is no surprise that market research comes up occasionally and much to my delight there is a whole episode of The Thick of It about focus groups.  Unfortunately in this episode focus groups are not shown in the best light!

In the episode in question the Minister’s team is arguing over a policy decision and can’t agree on the route ahead.  Junior Policy Advisor Oliver Reader says “lets throw this to a focus group.”  Very wise, I think, until he says “I can run a focus group.”  And thus, I get a feeling of doom.  The group goes well and when Ollie reports back to the Minister he identifies an individual participant within the group who agrees with all of their policies from which he concludes that she must be “representative of the public.”  “Can we get her in for a one-to-one?” the Minister asks, and so they do, and they base their policy decisions around what she says.  The policy goes ahead and is a political disaster.  It turns out the “representative of the public” is an actress and was employed by the recruitment agency to play the role of a focus group participant to boost numbers.  Apparently that’s normal – “it happens all the time.  They’re a bit short of numbers they bung in a couple of actors.”  “I was just being representative – I was giving you what you wanted” she says.  So no wonder it turns out basing everything on her opinion was a bad idea.  Cue much anger and swearing from the wonderful Malcolm Tucker.

So what can we learn from the Thick of It to make sure that focus groups do not go so badly wrong?

  • Employ an expert qualitative researcher to plan, moderate and report on the focus groups – they will make sure that the groups are conducted ethically, and that recommendations based on the findings are independent and evidence-based. 
  • Honesty is important – focus group should be an environment where participants feel able to say what they want to say and creativity can flourish.  It won’t work as well if participants are not being themselves, or if they are trying to say what they think the moderator or client wants to hear.  This is where an independent moderator makes a real difference, because they know how to get the best out of focus group participants.
  • Invite the right people to participate, that’s absolutely critical.  Real people, people who fit into key target groups.  Not actors, not experts, not professional focus group attenders who make fifty quid a week from having a chat about a random subject.  People who would genuinely have something to say about the issue in hand.  It is possible to employ a recruitment agency to find appropriate participants, and if they don’t get the right mix of people they don’t get paid.  If they knowingly put actors (or people who are not who they say they are) into your group you should report them to the Market Research Society and get them in big trouble with their professional body, which they would absolutely deserve.
  • Finally don’t put all your eggs in one basket – it would be unwise to make decisions about whether something will succeed based on the opinions of one group or worse one individual.  Don’t use focus groups to count anything or expect to receive a concrete answer.
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