Focus Groups and the American Dream


Even though the focus group has become a widely used research technique in the automobile industry over the past several decades, a lot of folks still don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.

Let’s take a focus group junket and have a look-see. Typically, the focus group is conducted in a room that seats up to 10 participants and the moderator. One wall is covered with what appears to be a giant mirror, but is really a one-way mirror (although some call it a two-way mirror) that permits clients in the adjoining room to observe the focus group—while remaining invisible to the group attendees.

The participants are recruited randomly (a rare occurrence), or from clubs, organizations and church groups, or from customer lists, or from the focus group facility’s database of professional focus group respondents. Each participant is usually paid $50 to $100 (or more) for participating in the focus group.

The group session begins with an introduction by the focus group moderator, who explains the purpose of the discussion, sets important discussion rules (e.g., talk one at a time), and reveals the presence of hidden observers and sound-recording and video recording equipment (no Watergates, please). The moderator begins the session by asking participants to introduce themselves, and follows with several easy questions to get the group relaxed, warmed up, and talking.

Then the topic of interest (American-made cars in this instance) is introduced and the moderator, if experienced and wise, shuts up. The room is dead silent. The moderator sits patiently. Tension builds and builds, and the room ignites with conversation about cars. The respondents talk about the decline in quality of American-made cars and the rise in quality of foreign cars, about the lack of service at dealerships, about the difficulty of working on their own cars, about the dangers of traveling by automobile, and about their fears for the safety of their children.

The moderator subtly guides the discussion by hand motions, nods of the head, facial expressions, raised eyebrows, and verbal suggestions and hints. The moderator also controls the flow of discussion by probing, summarizing, paraphrasing, by “reflecting” back what group members have expressed, and also by direct questioning when necessary.

How It Feels

Most importantly, the moderator assumes a relaxed, non-threatening and non-authoritative stance and style. What is most important about a focus group is how it feels to the participants and moderator. The respondents must feel comfortable, secure, and free to express their opinions without fear of disapproval or embarrassment. The moderator must feel relaxed and confident—or at least be able to hide his anxiety and insecurity. The proper emotional chemistry is essential to the success of a focus group. If participants are uptight and the moderator is nervous, the group’s expressiveness and honesty will be greatly compromised.

Meanwhile, in the observation room behind the one-way mirror, the clients from American Car Inc. are grimacing and getting red in the face. The truth is not easy to accept. The observers don't believe the respondents know what they are talking about. The observers ask, “Where in the world did these people come from? Who are they? How in the world could the group participants think that the quality of American cars is inferior to foreign-made cars?”

Then the observers figure it out. They conclude the moderator is biasing the respondents and causing them to say bad things about American cars. The moderator is letting negative respondents dominate the session. The moderator is not defending the American car industry.

But the moderator is smart. He has planted an associate in the observation room who now comes to his defense and explains to the observers that they are being defensive. This associate further explains that defensiveness inhibits one’s ability to accept new information and to solve problems. He explains that it doesn’t matter whether the respondents like American cars or not. The only thing that is important, he notes, is that the observers leave that night with an understanding of why the participants do not like American cars. If they (the clients) know the why, he explains, then they have the knowledge to influence their customers and shape the future. So, the observers relax a bit and turn their attention back to the discussion on the other side of the mirror.

In the focus group room, the moderator puts the group into a role-playing mode. “Let’s pretend,” he says, “that we are the board of directors of an American car company. What can we do to beat foreign competitors?” At first, the suggestions are sparse, and then someone refers back to the problems mentioned earlier in the groups, and this sparks several new ideas. Soon the “board of directors” is rolling and comes up with three radical new product concepts:

  • The Maintenance-Free Car. Dealerships provide bad service and cars are too complicated for consumers to repair themselves, the participants note. Therefore, why not design and manufacture a car that requires virtually no service, and make the car simple enough that its owner can make most of the repairs himself.
  • The Teenager Safety Car. Teenagers tend to kill themselves in cars and this worries parents, they note. The solution: design a sporty car that appeals to teenagers but incorporates safety features to appeal to parents. Mom and Dad would be willing to pay extra for their children’s safety.
  • The Long-Lasting Car. Planned obsolescence and frequent design changes do not make any sense in a world of scarce resources and rising car prices, respondents point out. Thus, design and introduce a five-year or 10-year model. Each year, instead of restyling and retooling, simply lower the car’s price a few hundred dollars.

Strategic Positioning

Then the group discussion moves to the issue of strategic positioning. “What will make our cars unique and intrinsically valuable vis-à-vis foreign competition?” the moderator asks. A consensus develops quickly. American cars must be better designed, better built, and longer-lasting than foreign cars. American cars must, in essence, be of higher quality than foreign cars. So, now we have a strategic positioning and a long-term objective (building better cars) to guide research and development, product design, manufacturing, quality control, and marketing communication efforts of American Car Inc.

Now an hour and 45 minutes have elapsed. The participants are growing weary and the observers are getting restless. The moderator ends the session and thanks attendees for their help. Most of the participants mention how much they enjoyed the discussion. They leave in a chatter and 30 minutes later, out in the parking lot under a pole light, several of the respondents are seen standing in a circle continuing the discussion.

Personal Presentation

The clients come out of the observation room, chagrined and convinced that respondents were not representative, that a dominate personality in the group led the discussion and encouraged the others to say bad things about American cars. The moderator tactfully assures the clients from American Car Inc. that no one dominated the discussion, and that what they heard is probably representative.

The moderator encourages his clients to keep an open mind. Six focus groups later, the data collection phase is complete. The moderator watches the groups again on video and begins the analysis. His final report documents existing attitudes, explains how these attitudes developed and how they might be changed, suggests new product possibilities, and recommends a strategic positioning for American Car Inc.

Because a written report seldom conveys the subtleties and nuances of consumer attitudes and because clients don’t read research reports anyway, the final step is a personal presentation of the results in Detroit. The presentation gets off to a slow start, and the managerial audience is somewhat negative—until the CEO (who did not attend the groups) praises the honesty of the message and notes the importance of facing up to reality.

Thereafter, the management attendees from American Car Inc. applaud wildly during the balance of the presentation, repent for their past failures and sins, and promise to do better in the future for the sake of consumers, the American dream, and U.S. industrial leadership. And everyone lives happily ever after.


Jerry W. Thomas

Jerry W. Thomas

Chief Executive Officer

Jerry founded Decision Analyst in September 1978. The firm has grown over the years and is now one of the largest privately held, employee-owned research agencies in North America. The firm prides itself on mastery of advanced analytics, predictive modeling to maximize learning from research studies, and the development of leading-edge analytic software.

Jerry is deeply involved in the firm’s development of new research methods and techniques and in the design of new software systems. He plays a key role in the development of Decision Analyst’s proprietary research services and related mathematical models.

Jerry describes himself as a student of marketing strategy, new product development, mathematical modeling, business survival, and economic growth. In his spare time, he likes to work on his farm in East Texas where he grows grapes, apples, pears, pecans, plums, and peaches; a forest of native trees, grasses, and insects; and wild plants of many types.

He graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington, earned his MBA at the University of Texas at Austin, and studied graduate economics at SMU.

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