by Dennis Bruce


Too many senior executives are sequestered atop their corporate aeries far above what is happening down on the street. Leading from on high, they lack the direct interaction with their customers, which is the hallmark of enlightened management.

Let me stress, however, that the place for interaction is not on the respondent side of the mirror in focus groups. In my view, marketing people and their CEOs should not sit in the same room with focus group participants. A number of people seem to think they should, including John Dalla Costa, "What Really Matters Now - Marketing, January 7, 2002.

Senior executives should get personally involved in focus groups, advises John. Research, he says, is too important to be left to "intermediaries" and executives should be in there "asking questions and hearing responses, struggling as human beings to understand and fashion the values of creating 'we'".

With the greatest respect, since John is a friend and one of the brightest minds in our business - I beg to differ, for at least two reasons: 1) Clients, no matter how sincere, cannot muster the objectivity needed to engage in direct dialogue in a focus group setting; 2) that lack of objectivity means they cannot frame questions in an unbiased way.

To paraphrase John, I would say that because some things are too important, it is necessary that a highly skilled, objective intermediary be employed.

In moderating thousands of focus groups over the past 15 years, I have found that client and agency executives seldom, if ever, possess the objectivity necessary to frame questions to focus group participants in an unbiased way. Inevitably, every executive has one or more agendas that he or she is eager to see fulfilled. A CEO, for example, may have a career agenda, a business agenda, a shareholders agenda, a political agenda and a personal agenda. With each agenda, objectivity recedes until it vanishes. I have seen normally well composed clients become agitated and irrational when they hear people say negative things about their brand. Instead of remaining cool and trying to understand what people meant by what they said, these clients immediately wanted to tell participants they were wrong. Some even shouted obscenities through the one-way glass.

A few years ago, a client of mine insisted on talking to participants at the end of each group. He was visibly annoyed, offended that people could even entertain negative perceptions of his brand. While watching and listening, he was overcome by the need to meet them and correct their "misperceptions". Instead of asking himself why these misperceptions existed and what changes to his brand, marketing, advertising or PR program would correct them, he thought that by confronting the naysayers and converting them to his way of thinking, his problems would go away.

Framing questions correctly to get at truth and insight is probably one of the most important skills a moderator has to employ. There is a common notion that all questions are neutral. But as Neil Postman points out in his book, Technopoly, "The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers." He tells the story of two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time, wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest asked, "Is it permissible to smoke while praying?" and was told that it was not, since prayer must be the focus of one's whole attention and smoking was a distraction. The other asked, "Is permissible to pray while smoking?" He was told that it was, since it is always appropriate to pray. "The form of a question," Postman declares, "may even block us from seeing solutions to problems that become visible through a different question."

Veteran American researcher, Eric Marder, in his book, The Laws of Choice, posits the Question-Answer Principle. "A question is a persuasive message, which triggers an answer, which is a choice. If we want to understand the meaning of the responses," he says, "we must both understand the persuasive message in the question and the choice that is demanded of the respondent."

Clearly, asking questions is not as simple and straightforward as most people think. And it takes, I believe, the well trained focus group moderator, to get to the truths that lie under the surface of verbal responses and reveal consumer insights.

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