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I recently came across an article from the BBC about the origin of the phrase ‘focus groups.’ The article notes that the term has its origins in ancient times and the worship of goddesses in Rome—and in fact, the sacred flame in the temple of the Vestal Virgins was the ‘focus’ of all Rome. Later, ‘focus’ was used generally as fire or fireplace, once the center of home life.

In the 20th century, sociologist Robert Merton performed ‘focused interviews’ with homeless men during the depression, and later with WWII servicemen. He felt these discussions gave him “almost privileged access to people’s states of mind.”

Then in the 1950s, Ernest Dichter first used the actual term ‘focus group.’ His renown is more controversial as he applied group discussion techniques and psychology to marketing and market research.

More recently, we see focus groups treated either as a way to find out what consumers really think, or being vilified as creativity-crushing. Some question the dynamics of groups and declare that consumers don’t know what they want, or that they don’t tell the truth. Here’s the thing: No one tells the truth absolutely. Instead of dismissing all consumer discussions because you’ve heard lies, ask the question, “Why aren’t the consumers telling the truth?” 

Simply observing behaviors just doesn’t get to the ‘why’ and ‘why not’—it only shows us what folks do. 

Some feel consumers should just be observed, like lab rats. While this can be a useful method under the right circumstances, I take umbrage that this idea is often based on the notion that "consumers don’t know what they want," or "they can’t tell us what they want." Simply observing behaviors just doesn’t get to the ‘why’ and ‘why not’—it only shows us what folks do. And please don’t forget the Hawthorne effect, wherein people modify their behavior when being observed.

Of course, consumers aren’t rats—they are thinking, feeling, intelligent and creative human beings. When you treat them with respect and give them an open, non-judgemental ear, you’d be shocked at how excellent they are at self-reporting both their habits and practices, as well as pain points and desires. They have hearts and minds, folks. And I challenge anyone to show me that there is a better technique to find out what they are thinking and feeling than by asking, and then being open to hearing what they tell you. 

The problem is that most people in corporate America (and worldwide) have no idea how to talk to consumers—or they simply dismiss the notion of such an act. In fact, there are both really good ways to talk to consumers, and very poor ways to do so. For one thing, you cannot treat every group and each consumer the same—the process and discussion techniques should vary, depending on the consumer, the objective and the subject matter. It is, in my opinion, as much art as technique—and practice definitely helps.

At Ideas To Go, we love working with consumers—and personally, I feel that it is essential. I consider it a privilege, and with few exceptions, I have found working with a group of consumers to be most enlightening and very rewarding—for our clients, for myself and, yes, even the consumers.

We often work with consumers to get deeper insights, and then use those insights to come up with great ideas. To that end, we look for imaginative and articulate folks. Once we find them, we train them in creative problem-solving and effective group techniques. We call these folks Creative Consumers® associates. They are the “sacred flame” at the center of our process, and they are a joy to work with. 

Because we are not looking for ‘truth,’ but rather inspiration and insights, we encourage our consumers to use their imagination and invite clients to work directly with them to develop new and intriguing product ideas and communications—a process often called co-creation. In this work, our facilitators leads the consumer-client teams to generate a broad range of insights and ideas, as we guide them in the creation process. Typically, it starts very broadly—by asking consumers about their utopian wishes, their problems, and their desires in the topic area. Using this output as a catalyst, we work with the client team to identify opportunity areas, that we then delve into with greater detail to create specific ideas.  

When you let them know you have a true desire to hear what they have to say, they will tell you wonderful and revealing things—yes, even in a group setting—if you know how to lead the discussion and treat them with respect.

Another way we work with consumers is to have them react to ideas generated in co-creation sessions with clients and Creative Consumers® associates. Here, we use a more traditional recruiting profile, based on demographic and product usage. What we ask these folks to do is react, honestly, to the ideas presented. When you let them know you have a true desire to hear what they have to say, they will tell you wonderful and revealing things—yes, even in a group setting—if you know how to lead the discussion and treat them with respect.

For those who want to get consumer insights from consultants and experts, or who don’t have the time to listen and work directly with your consumers, I say too bad. I do believe there is value in other approaches—but if you exclude working with consumers directly, you’re missing out on great insights, incredible ideas and a rewarding experience. I encourage you to place consumer work at the center of your process, and to gather around the “sacred flame”—just as the early Romans did.


Ed Harrington is the CEO of Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

©2015 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ed Harrington

Ed Harrington is CEO and Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies to incorporate the voice of the consumer in ideation and concept development. He co-authored the book, "Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward."