If you aren’t talking to your customers and prospects, then you are doing it wrong. However, many clients are surprised that our organization, PROOF, doesn’t do any qualitative research (interviews and focus groups). Not because talking to customers isn’t valuable — it has its place (discussed later) — but when it comes to creating a responsible marketing plan, it is dangerous to base strategies off of conversations alone.
We see organizations waste time, money and opportunities by making quick marketing decisions on the heels of a set of customer interviews without understanding the nuances and math behind those conversations. While the full list is much longer, here are the top five reasons why your focus groups and interviews are ruining marketing and communications at your organization.
1. People lie
People lie all the time, and research conversations are no exception. We lie about our true motivations when we buy cars, go on vacations or even when we buy lunch. We tend to paint ourselves in the best light possible, especially when someone specifically asks us about those motivations.
There are two types of lying we think you need to know about, what we call intentional lying and unintentional lying.
Intentional: Intentional lying occurs most often because the brain naturally defaults to give a response that reflects positive social norms instead of disclosing our true feelings. People will lie intentionally about things our culture skews as more socially desirable such as recycling, volunteering, voting a certain way or going to church. Typically, if the emotional value of the social norm exceeds the personal emotional value to the individual, the social norm will take precedence, and a lie is likely to follow.
Unintentional: People lie unintentionally all the time, and it is hard to detect. The brain isn’t particularly good at recalling details, so it fills in the gaps over time. This means that many of the colorful details or reasons for reflecting on a purchase are made up, even if interviewees swear to their truth. We all do this even if we don’t realize it. Flashbulb memory studies show our accuracy in recalling facts and emotions, even around major life events, is low, yet our confidence that our memories are correct is high.
2. People attempt to justify their emotional decisions with logic
On the surface we do this to make ourselves feel better about decisions we already made. We tend to associate our own identity and ego with our conscious, rational mind, and we project that association to whomever is buying our product or service. So simply put, we trick ourselves into believing that people are motivated to purchase our product or service based on a rational justification of an emotion and not the emotion itself.
For instance, if you were to buy a luxury vehicle you might tell people you “got a good deal” and are unlikely to tell people your true motivations, which might be that you “felt you deserved it after a raise” or that you “want others to think you are successful.” A good rule of thumb is any time you hear a logical reason for a purchase, you likely have bad information.
3. Your interviewees are not a representative sample of your buyer
Not only are the people you are interviewing likely a mathematical outlier (i.e., a good customer that is easily accessible), but their opinions are not statistically relevant. This is one of the biggest marketing mistakes we see. Interviews and focus groups can be helpful in generating ideas and hypotheses but not proving them.
4. You can’t repeat an emotional purchasing moment
This is a major flaw in qualitative research, actually in market research in general. If someone isn’t “in market” or willing and able to purchase something, you are getting bad information. It is also challenging to identify where on the adoption curve the person is, and with small samples that is critical information to know.
In addition, when people are in a focus group or an interview situation, there is social pressure of observation and/or groupthink, neither of which is reflective of how we naturally make purchase decisions in real life.
5. Your interviewees are influenced by YOU.
If it makes you feel any better, it’s not as if you can help it. You can’t be invisible, and your mere presence, along with your unconscious bias, is leading the witness. Leading the witness happens in almost every form of research, which is why it is important to have a third party execute important research for you. In almost every internal interview report or survey we have reviewed, there is clear evidence where the interviewee is leading the witness, and we recommend the findings be thrown out.
When You Should Use Interviews and Focus Groups
Qualitative research does still have its place functionally in market research, and here are the two times you should be using focus groups and interviews.
When you are completely out of ideas: Interviews and focus groups are very helpful when you feel you have tried every angle, and you just need a fresh set of eyes. However, qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups are hypothesis mediums. Remember these qualitative interactions are helpful to come up with ideas and not necessarily solutions. Take the hypotheses you gather, go back and look at your big data, and see if the story changes. Or run a quantitative study to confirm the hypotheses at a broader scale.
When you need to watch someone interact with your physical product: Just because your product design makes sense to you or your engineers doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense to everyone else. Watching other people pick up your product and use it can be a huge advantage to your engineering team.
Your brain overvalues the content from conversations, even when they are just a sample of one. Remember that the content from an interview or a focus group is an idea and not a solution. Minimize waste by treating these ideas as options and use quantitative methods to vet those ideas before you invest in them.
Grant Gooding is an emotional-data thought leader; speaker; and marketing and neuroscience nerd. He is founder and CEO of PROOF Positioning, a market research firm that specializes in emotional data.