A problem lurking for decades in market research focus groups meets up with a guiding framework from UJ researchers Dube and Roberts-Lombard.
Big companies pay big money to figure out whether people will like a new or changed product. But for decades the very research meant to do this has sported its own flaws.
Qualitative market research makes use of ‘focus groups’ where ordinary people say what they like or don’t like about a product. A company may want to take a product focusing on an exclusive market segment for example, and re-position it for the middle income market as well.
In one focus group, the company asks people within the middle income segment what will entice them to buy the product. In another focus group, the company asks people from the upper income segment if they will continue to buy the product if it is not as exclusive as it used to be, says Prof Mornay Roberts-Lombard,, Deputy Head of Department at the Department of Marketing Management at the University of Johannesburg.
At this point, raw honesty is what a research buyer is looking for.
“You’re trying to get a deeply personal opinion from a person in a focus group, get their strong beliefs and emotions. You need them to cut to the chase and say what they really feel. That is why focus groups are so nice because you can do one-on-one interviews, without a lot of people around,” he says.
Honesty often not the policy
It turns out that kind of honesty can be hard to find the way research is conducted currently, says Roberts-Lombard.
A company often pays top dollar for qualitative research and then finds the process too slow and not yielding the information it is looking for.
Roberts-Lombard says two culprits in the research process deserve special mention: the skills of the person moderating (or facilitating) the focus group and research suppliers racing against time.
“Getting hold of the most qualified person to moderate can be a challenge. Often research suppliers get pushed into a corner to deliver results as soon as possible. Is there really enough time to find the most suitable moderator, to find the most appropriate people to participate in the focus group and find a venue accessible to them?” he asks.
If all other factors are taken care of but the skills of the moderator are inadequate, the entire research exercise still falls flat, says Roberts-Lombard.
“Focus group moderators often cut corners,” agrees Dr Busani Dube, lecturer at the Department of Marketing Research at the University of Johannesburg.
“Instead of following the fundamental research process, they’re in a rush. Tasks they should do, but which they think are too difficult, just don’t get done.”
Marketing research services are like plumbing services in some ways. Maybe the job was not done very well, the pipe still leaks lots of water, but the client may be unable to notice that.
“The buyers of research can’t tell whether the quality is good or bad. That is a big problem. But people doing research can’t tell the difference either, because they have no measurement instruments to tell them,” says Dube.
To address this, Dube and Roberts-Lombard designed a guiding framework that assists buyers and sellers of marketing research.
“The framework we developed looks from the planning stage of the focus group right though to the research results. It includes managing the problems, managing the sample (the people participating), the data analysis, interpretation and results,” says Roberts-Lombard.
Adds Dube: “The framework stipulates what needs to be done in qualitative market research projects. Any deviation from that means that quality is compromised. These are the cardinal steps any practitioner should follow. In industry they choose not to do that because it takes time. They are in a rush to conclude projects. Companies assume they’re paying for quality, but when I go looking I find gaps and problems in the process.”
When the pressures of little time and much effort combine, the quality of marketing research results based on focus groups can be difficult to assess. Dube and Roberts-Lombard have designed a tool both buyers and sellers can use to measure the quality of the research process.