Focus groups don’t work. Ever.

One of my favorite stories, as told by fellow evangelist Guy Kawasaki, illustrates this point perfectly.

Remember when the boom box first came out? Bright colors all around – bright blue, yellow, orange and hot pink. Those color options were a direct result of a series of focus groups Sony conducted with target-market teenagers – who were unanimously vehement about not liking black. Black was the color their parents would buy, and no way would a cool kid want to carry around a boring black boom box.

Fast-forward six months and the fluorescent-colored boom boxes are still on the shelves in mass numbers. they’re not selling. So Sony goes back to the focus group well and asks again what color the boom boxes should be. “Not black” was still the consistent answer.

This time, once the focus groups were over, the kids were told they could each take home a boom box of their choice from the display downstairs in the lobby; every color in the Sony line was represented. Guess what color every single kid took home?


What happened? Simply put, focus groups are not a forum for tapping “true” feelings. People have complex, even conflicting motivations which often come together in unpredictable ways when faced with making decisions. And, furthermore, people often lie. Customers say all kinds of things in focus groups. And then they go out and do the exact opposite in the marketplace.

“The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative,” writes Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in his influential book How Customers Think. Zaltman says that 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots—virtually all of which are screened by focus groups—routinely fail in the marketplace.

The reasons for this are numerous, but here are the important ones to remember:

  1. People participate in focus groups for a variety of reasons – and not all motivations are equal. Some really want a chance to be heard, and some come just for the money. Others come for Some get their soapbox jones fulfilled, others just like meeting new people and interacting. And there’s no shortage of agency folks who are there solely to find out just who is doing the testing.
  2. Many focus group participants lie – and for the most part not on purpose. usually the issue is that they honestly aren’t aware of their true motivations and preferences, and as such have a hard time articulating them. So they lie about why they do things, confusing what they actually do with what they wish they did; psychologists call this unconscious lying. In addition, these same people often make up reasons to justify their preference to themselves and say what they think the moderator wants to hear; these are known as polite lies. More than anything else, they contradict themselves without realizing it.
  3. People have a natural tendency to work to enhance their own image of themselves. So they may give politically correct responses that meet majority approval in front of peers. They will often act very differently in real situations as compared with hypothetical ones.
  4. Most of the thoughts and feelings that influence behavior occur in the unconscious mind. “Unconscious thoughts are the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do,” Zaltman said in an interview. “In the space of five or 10 minutes in a focus group, which is the average airtime per person, you can’t possibly get at one person’s unconscious thinking.”
  5. The focus group setting is unnatural. Think about it for a minute: communicating with a bunch of strangers, all of whom are being led in a discussion by…another stranger. Can someone who is completely unknown to the group miraculously instill trust in such a short period of time? I think not. And without that trust, there is no way you’re going to elicit the true feelings of participants.
  6. Focus groups usually ask people to make snap judgments about products they haven’t seen or used. More often than not, participants know absolutely nothing about the product or have never experienced it. As such, participants will often formulate opinions on the spot, without any real commitment to what they’re saying.

Look, I fully recognize that the focus group is a time-honored tradition. However, I think we all need to see it for what it is, and for what it does best: validating initiatives or concepts in which sellers have already invested a lot of time and money.

While a focus group is supposed to explore the psychological needs of consumers, it’s more often a means of fulfilling the psychological needs of sellers.