Neuromarketing Myths (No. 2) – It’s all about brain scans

neuromarketing myths

 

Old School Myths

Here’s the second installment to our Neuromarketing Myths series. Neuromarketing techniques are increasingly being used by companies in order to test their brand perceptions, new concepts, products, packaging, communications and much more. Its use is so widespread that it is surprising how much misunderstanding there still is around neuromarketing. Here we will try and remove some of the mystery surrounding our profession, and address the most common misconceptions we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

 

It’s all about brain scansModern Examination In The Hospital

It is true that neuromarketing started out with a strong focus on technologies such as fMRI (brain scans) and EEG (measuring electrical brain activity). Modern neuromarketing now however is much more about scalable psychological and cognitive tests that can be carried out online. This is not just because they are cheaper,  faster to turn around and allow us to test many more participants, but also because they tend to provide clear and comparable data that can directly answer many market research questions. Automated facial encoding using webcam and implicit testing (refered to as IAT or IRT) is now becoming mainstream.

 

Neurobollocks

Many people who don’t have a background in psychology and neuroscience seem to believe that brain imaging techniques such as fMRI will give them better answers. Research has shown that people are more likely to be convinced by statements if these are presented next to a brain image and they seem to be similarly seduced by the idea of brain scanning in market research. But results from these studies are often much less clear than they may appear.

Neuromarketing has had some bad press, quite rightly at times. One particular neuromarketing study was lambasted after a New York Times OP-Ed piece compared iPhone addiction to cocaine use and falling in love because the insula’ lit up. The problem is that the insula lights up for loads of things. The same brain area may also be involved in working memory, physical pain, disgust, anger, visual perception, motor sequencing, and memory retrieval.

Insight professionals want to better understand the mechanisms of decision making and neuromarketing can and does help. It’s just a shame that some people get it so very very wrong and make the industry look stupid.


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Neuromarketing Myths (No. 1) – We can brainwash you!

neuromarketing myths

Old School Myths  Neuromarketing techniques are increasingly being used by companies in order to test their brand perceptions, new concepts, products, packaging, communications and much more. Its use is so widespread that it is surprising how much misunderstanding there still is around neuromarketing. Here we will try and remove some of the mystery surrounding our profession, and address the most common misconceptions we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

 

We can read minds (and brainwash you)

One of the most common things we hear when new clients first get in touch with us (or even when we just talk to friends about our jobs) is that they feel there is something ‘spooky’ or ‘scary’ about what we do. People either seem to think that we try and ‘read their mind’ to uncover aspects of themselves that they weren’t even aware of, or brainwash them into buying the latest product, or both.

Let’s be clear here: WhileMind Control it’s flattering that you put this much faith into our abilities as psychologists, neuroscientists, market researchers and data analysts, we’re really not that great. What seems to create this fear in people is neither currently possible nor desirable. Fundamentally, we try to answer the same questions as traditional market research, we just believe we have a better approach to it. Instead of just asking people for their opinion, we measure things such as their gut feelings about a product, how their opinion about a brand has been (very subtly) changed by communications, and whether they pay attention to an advert or not.

None of this has anything to do with brainwashing (not any more than advertising always has) or subliminal messaging. We are simply capturing people’s opinions and attitudes in a more effective way than traditional market research alone does.

Every year $billions are spent on ineffective market research. The aim of neuromarketing is to make market research spend more effective.

 Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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Be Strategic – Really?

strategic

Last week I was invited by Digital Annexe and ISBA to talk at ISBA’s Insight and networking event entitled ‘The Next 5 Years in Digital’.

It was great to see such a strong presence from Asda, Morrison’s and Nestle.

Sean Singleton from DA talked about the 7 habits of digital marketers (borrowed from Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective people).

The habit that stood out for me was ‘Be Strategic’. This seems blindingly obvious but most people don’t think long 7 Habitsterm. Sean argues that marketers are too focussed on driving more traffic to their websites but then fail to engage customers with the correct approaches to increase site conversion.

I think that this short term thinking is a ubiquitous problem in business and goes some way to explain why traditional market research dominates the market place and why the science of decision-making has not had more of an impact on marketing. This is despite compelling evidence from countless psychologists and neuroscientists that clearly demonstrates that the majority of our decision making processes occur below our conscious radar.

To translate the findings of decision sciences into marketing practices takes time. The fact that the average tenure of Chief Marketing Officers is just 45 months and the continual demand for short term results means that people are more worried about keeping their jobs than fixing the long term problems with a bloated over-emphasis of explicit self-report in market research.

I regularly speak to insight professionals who have read Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman or Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. These people even have a passion for decision sciences and understand that there is a key role in non-conscious processing in decision making but constantly come up against barriers when they discuss ideas of change with colleagues. Marketers need to spend time understanding how people make decisions. This is relevant to all categories but isn’t being done on anything like the scale that it should.

As humans we make mistakes and behave in irrational ways, which is reflected in cognitive biases. The reticence of researchers to change their approaches is, in some way, due to confirmation bias. When we make decisions, such as investing hundreds of thousands of pounds on traditional market research, our brains seek out evidence to make us think that we made the right decision. We are essentially blind to evidence that says the decision was wrong. We like it when a decision feels good.

Sean also states that as a key habit, we should create a culture of experimentation. Too true. New approaches need to be experimented with and validated – a process that takes time. Progressive marketers would be well advised to try out behaviourally based approaches that interrogate our non-conscious minds without post rationalisation. This can easily and cost effectively be done on small projects to introduce new thinking.

‘Be strategic’ may be one of the most overused phrases in business. It may well also be one of the most misunderstood.

Duncan Smith


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An idiot’s guide to neuromarketing – Mental shortcuts

We all know that for certain behaviours, our brain more or less switches to ‘autopilot’. When walking from A to B, you don’t constantly think about every single step that you take, or about how you have to hold up your head, breathe, and balance your body. Similarly, you might remember that the first few times you drove a car, you had to pay close attention to every single action involved in it, while you probably barely remember your last trip home from work.

These behaviours are often explained by saying that ‘your body remembers how to do these things’, or using words such as ‘muscle memory’. So while we understand these shortcuts with physical examples, we often forget that our mind functions in a similar way.

 

Our mental shortcuts influence how we see and perceive the world, how we think and reason, and how we make decisions.

Our behaviours, as well as concepts that have an impact on us, are represented by neural activity in our brains. Every time two behaviours occur at the same time, or two concepts are encountered together, our neural connection between them becomes stronger. This is often described with the sentence ‘cells that fire together, wire together’. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it is true that the connections we make between behaviours and/or concepts are reflected in neural networks, and grow stronger the more we encounter these links. This is why you press the clutch pedal and change gears without having to think about linking these behaviours, but also why you associate the taste of an orange with the colour orange.

 

Associations like these get built and used constantly, without us necessarily being aware of them. Dan Ariely believes we are the sum of our early decisions – the product of what he calls an arbitrary coherence of choices that we made long ago (or were made for us). As a result, in many cases, we make decisions that are simply the reflection of our initial choices.

These initial decisions become anchors that take root and resonate throughout our later lives much more than we would like to acknowledge. Our associations help us learn new concepts and avoid dangerous situations (e.g. walking through a dark alleyway or touching a hob), but are also what makes us prejudiced and jump to conclusions. They do however also help us make choices, and that’s where it gets interesting for market research. The vast amount of visual as well as factual information available to us when making pretty much any purchase decision is overwhelming, and we use the connections we have already established to help us make our choice. This can be reflected in the use of heuristics and biases, but even if the decision seems pretty rational to us (and we might be able to come up with an explanation for our choice afterwards), our behaviour is strongly influenced by these links and associations. It might be something as simple as picking one bottle over another because the label colour reminds us of our childhood home.

What does this mean for market research?

Traditional ‘asking methods’ such as surveys and focus groups require people to reflect on their behaviour, opinions and decisions as well as predict how they would act in the future. However, most of the time we don’t understand the associations and connections that underlie the decision-making processes. We still try to come up with explanations for our behaviour when asked to reflect on it, but the reasons we give often have little to do with what really drove our decision. In order to understand what drives behaviour, we need to understand what connections between concepts and associations are common. This means exploring and quantifying what concepts are connected with a brand or an advert, and how communications can be used to strengthen positive associations as well as weaken undesirable ones. Because these (often emotional) connections are what can make or break a purchase decision, it is important to explore them, rather than relying solely on the post-rationalisations people come up with when asked about their decision.


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The Scottish Referendum


 

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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Effective Branding

Gaining strong brand equity is an important goal for every brand. If you want to make your brand as successful as it can be, it is important to understand your brand’s personality, its position in the marketplace and its potential for moving into new areas. These questions can be tricky to answer, even using market research. It requires an approach that is completely individual to your brand and a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve. There are however three key areas that market research should focus on to fully understand your current positioning, potentials and limitations:

Brand Identity

This refers to the personality of your brand, the nature of its products and what values you want people to associate with your brand. There is probably some visual imagery associated with your brand, and you should get your brand to strongly own this imagery. This is tremendously important, as your imagery can lead customers to feel positively about your brand, induce feelings of familiarity and communicate concepts that are desirable to you, such as quality and affordability. All of this can lead to strong brand equity. It is also important that your brand manages to differentiate itself from its competitors. Asking people how they feel about your brand can provide a good starting point, but you should not stop there: It is (arguably even more) important to find out how people truly and subconsciously feel about your brand, which imagery and messages are essential to your brand and which ones are not making people feel more positively about it.

Brand Space

Your brand does not exist in isolation, and you know this. To improve your brand, it is absolutely essential to understand where exactly it lies within its category and marketplace, and what sets it apart from competitors. People need to easily identify your brand as part of the category, but also see it as different enough to understand why they should buy your products, and not the competitors’. Understanding your positioning is essential when you are thinking of growing and expanding your brand, perhaps taking over new categories, or even if you just want to make people feel more positively about your brand and associate it with the right values. How people feel about your brand is largely driven by their subconscious, and measuring these subconscious feelings can help you carve out a unique space in the market and really stand out from the crowd.

Brand Behaviour

Apart from understanding your brand’s personality and its space in the market, you might also want to find out how flexible your brand is. You don’t want your brand to stagnate, but at the same time know it should stay true to its personality. How flexible your brand is will largely depend on its products and categories, but understanding its possibilities and limitations is essential to make your brand as successful as it can be. For addressing potential brand behaviour, an individually tailored approach is needed. It is important to assess how consumers will react to changes to your brand; reaching into new categories, creating new products, changing brand personality, or changing the focus of brand communications. It is also important to find out what consumers really want; are the planned changes to the brand, products or communications desirable to the consumer? At this stage, it is also worth taking your competitors into account. Can your brand react to your competitor’s changes quickly and efficiently? The way this is tested is similar to testing your brand identity and brand space, but you might be interested in monitoring changes over time as well. The three key areas for effective branding can of course be investigated using the traditional asking methods of market research, but this won’t paint the whole picture. A large proportion of the decisions we make is influenced by our subconscious, and it important to test how people truly feel about your brand using the most effective market research available.

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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Detecting emotions with EEG patterns

The holy grail of consumer research is to figure out how to accurately measure emotions. Emotions are complex, involving physiological, cognitive and social components that come together to create the subjective experience. Consumer decision making is driven by emotions (Schwartz, 2000) that signal us to approach or avoid things in our environment, based on how rewarding we think they will be (Damasio et al., 1996).

Common consumer research approaches to measuring emotion all have their weaknesses (self-reporting, autonomic measures, facial encoding, facial electromyography, fMRI).* Electroencephalography (EEG) is a promising tool, as it measures real-time changes in voltage caused by brain activity, has good temporal resolution, and is less invasive than fMRI. Frontal alpha asymmetries are a commonly used metric in EEG consumer research. Greater left than right frontal alpha asymmetry was originally thought to reflect positive valence in the brain (Davidson, 1992), but research on anger revealed it to be a measure of approach motivation rather than positivity (Harmon-Jones, 2007). However, this asymmetry is affected by trait factors as well as current emotional state (Coan & Allen, 2003), and it is unclear how accurate this measure is on a second-by-second basis.

We sought to use EEG pattern recognition to detect positive and negative emotional responses in the brain. The first challenge was eliciting real positive and negative emotions in a reliable and consistent way. We used several methods including presenting participants with emotive pictures, emotional face images and short video clips, mood induction statements,  emotive music and pure major, minor and dissonant tones. We created our own genuine facial emotional expression database for use in the study**. Participants viewed these stimuli while their EEG was measured. Then a classifier recognised which EEG features (power and coherence) corresponded to positive and negative emotions in each individual. We randomly selected 70% of each individual’s data from the positive and negative conditions, respectively, for each stimulus type. A pattern recognition algorithm learned how to classify the data into two separate categories (positive and negative). We then used the other 30% of the data to attempt to predict whether the participant was viewing or listening to positive or negative stimuli. The result is the percentage accuracy of this prediction. EEG power alone had very poor predictive power, hardly better than chance. In contrast, power and coherence together had excellent predictive power. The stimuli that produced the most accurate predictions were pure tones (95% accuracy); and the stimuli that produced the least accurate predictions were emotional images. This is unsurprising as tones are pure and unimpeded by ‘noise’, while images are varied in their content. The music was also highly predictive (93%); followed by the emotional faces (92%), the mood induction statements (91%) and finally the short video clips of emotional faces (87%).

Although this was a pilot study with a very small sample, this study showed that EEG pattern recognition is a promising method for measuring individuals’ emotional responses to visual and auditory stimuli. Its accuracy depends on the validity of the trained algorithms and its capability to perform on new datasets. Further research will focus on whether this powerful method can be used to accurately predict how people feel towards images and videos of products, people, brands and concepts.

* Self-reporting of emotion is a common approach with many pitfalls. Autonomic measures include heart rate and skin conductance, which are good for measuring the physiological intensity of emotion, but fail to specify whether the emotion is positive or negative. Facial encoding or facial electromyography (EMG) only capture the expression of emotion. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is extremely expensive, has poor temporal resolution, and has ecological validity issues, (participants are placed in a small tube in a noisy magnet and must keep still).

** Most emotional face databases are not available for commercial use, and they use acted emotional expressions. We used a variety of tasks to elicit Ekman’s (1971) six emotions (happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, anger and fear) while recording 20 participants’ emotional expressions. We chose still images and short clips of the participants showing genuine emotion and had 90 participants evaluate the images on valence and arousal to ensure they adequately represented the desired emotions. The innovative idea of creating short video clips capturing the most intense and convincing emotional responses was to ensure the highest possible level of ecological validity. The resulting database of still images and short clips was used to elicit emotions in the EEG study.

 

References:

Coan, J.A., & Allen, J.J. (2003). Frontal EEG asymmetry and the behavioural activation and inhibition systems. Psychophysiology, 40, 106-114.

Damasio, A. R., Everitt, B. J., & Bishop, D. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., 351(1346), 1413-1420.

Davidson, R.J. (1992). Anterior cerebral asymmetry and the nature of emotion. Brain and Cognition, 20, 125–151.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129.

Harmon-Jones, E. (2007). Trait anger predicts relative left frontal cortical activation to anger-inducing stimuli. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 66, 154-160.

Schwarz, N. (2000). Emotion, cognition, and decision making. Cognition and Emotion, 14, 433–440.


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How to get people to recycle more

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Why is there so much apathy towards recycling in the workplace and how can we drive behaviour change towards recycling?

To answer these questions we teamed up with Ceris Burns International who are specialists in Environmental PR.

The British recycle 43% of their household waste, a massive improvement on the average of 11% 14 years ago. This is still below the 50% EU target for 2020 and this rise in recycling has been slowing down in the past few years. Workplace recycling is even lower. We found that 22% of workplaces are not even providing recycling facilities. A whopping 52% are confused about what the can and can’t recycle.

Communications have a greater impact if they are emotive since emotions power decision making, but how exactly should these messages be presented in order to effectively change attitudes and behaviour?

We decided to find out whether threatening, negative messages or positive, hopeful messages about recycling had a greater impact on changing peoples’ attitudes about how important recycling is.

There is some reason to predict that negatively framed messages may have more of an impact on peoples’ attitudes. We automatically attend to threats in our environment as a survival mechanism, and we tend to give more weight to potential losses than potential gains. The impact of framing also depends on the situation and target audience. Negative messaging tends to be more effective when the outcome is risky or uncertain, and when the audience feels strongly involved in the issue. Under certain circumstances, positive messages can influence people more strongly than negative messages by reinforcing positive associations with the attitudes and behaviour. We have found this to be the case in previous research we have conducted.

We used an implicit association test (IAT) to measure implicit, subconscious attitudes towards the importance of recycling. Because recycling is a socially desirable behaviour, simply asking people about their intentions to recycle may not be an accurate prediction of future behaviour. Measuring subconscious associations bypasses people’s tendency to answer with what they think they are expected to say, allowing us to more accurately measure whether the communications have had an impact on attitudes towards recycling.

We questioned 200 UK adults about their current recycling behaviour and attitudes towards recycling; then viewed either positive or negative messages about recycling; followed by an implicit (IAT) test measuring how strongly they associate recycling with importance; and finally they answered questions regarding their intentions to recycle in the future.

We found that:

After seeing positive messages people subconsciously felt that recycling was more important, suggesting positive messages are more influential in this context than negative messages.

Importantly, this effect was significantly enhanced for people who thought recycling was less important, less effective and who reported less frequent recycling behaviour, suggesting that positive messaging should specifically target this group in order to change their attitudes and hopefully their future recycling behaviour.

In contrast to the implicit findings, the positive and negative messages did not lead to differences in self-reported intentions to recycle in the future, demonstrating the importance of the implicit measure in this study.

In summary, if you want your employees or colleagues to recycle more, highlight the benefits of recycling rather than trying to make them feel bad about not recycling. To avoid confusion over what can and can’t be recycled, ensure clearly labelled facilities are present where people generate waste. Make sustainability part of the company ethos and lead by example.

A copy of the best practice guide to recycling can be downloaded from the Ceris Burns PR website HERE.

An interview with Duncan Smith from Mindlab and Ceris Burns from Ceris Burns PR on this research can be seen on the Institute of Directors website HERE

 

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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Why the subconscious matters

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If you want to truly understand consumer behaviour, you need to not only look at people’s explicit responses (what they say they like), but to also take subconscious emotions and judgements into account. But why is it the case that subconscious processes influence our decisions? Surely we should make better judgements if we consciously thought about our decisions more and not let our gut feelings take over. In this blog post, I will look into how we use subconscious ‘thinking’ to make decisions and why this is actually a good strategy.

Coke cans and cars

It is often thought that we base our decisions primarily on conscious thinking when there is a lot at stake, for example when we buy expensive goods, choose a place to live or buy a car. In contrast, when shopping for cheaper or less important products, subconscious thought is often the main driver of our decisions (we will usually pick an item within seconds out of a range of competitors, without consciously weighing up all of their pros and cons, but rather trusting our intuition). This theory certainly makes sense when you think about subconscious thinking as fast and relatively easy, and conscious thought as a slow, more effortful process that can be used to override the subconscious and evaluate different aspects more carefully. But is there more to subconscious decision-making than is immediately obvious? If you are making an important decision (e.g. buying a house), your friends and family will encourage you to spend a good amount of time considering different options, sleep on the decision, write down advantages and disadvantages and discuss them with others. But research has shown that only trusting your conscious thoughts might not always be the best approach.

Spontaneity and happiness

We think that thinking hard and justifying decisions will lead to better outcomes, but this is not always the case. An experiment was conducted to test whether people would be happier with spontaneous decisions or ones they justified (Wilson et al., 1990). For this, participants were given the choice between several posters which they were allowed to keep after the experiment. Half of the participants had to just pick a poster and take it home, while the other half were asked to write down reasons for why they picked the poster. Both were told that the experimenter would not know which poster they picked, so that they would not feel judged for their decisions. Not only did the spontaneous group pick different posters than the deliberation group (posters that were ‘just pretty’ instead of ones with motivating slogans, etc.), when asked a few months later about their decisions, they were also much happier with the choice they made. But one might argue that picking a poster is not a particularly important decision, and that of course we can trust our subconscious to make this choice. However, the following example will show that we should use our gut feelings when making more important decisions as well.

Is our subconscious better at making important decisions?

In order to test whether we make better judgements using conscious or sub-conscious decision-making processes, a series of studies was carried out at the University of Amsterdam, looking at choosing apartments or potential roommates (Dijksterhuis, 2004). For this, participants were shown 12 pieces of information about each possible apartment (e.g. size, location) or roommate (e.g. tidy, fun). The way the information was presented ensured that there was always a hypothetical ‘best choice’ (one apartment was better than the others). After showing participants the information, they were either asked to pick their favourite straight away (control condition), were given 3 minutes to think about their decision and then choose (conscious thought) or were distracted with a difficult task for 3 minutes and then asked to decide (this discouraged conscious thought and was therefore seen as the subconscious decision). When looking at the choices they made, it turned out that the subconscious group made the best decisions (subjectively, as well as when individual importance of factors was taken into account – e.g. when someone said that location was more important than size, etc.).

How is this possible?

When thinking of conscious and subconscious thought as simply slow vs. fast or effortful vs. effortless, we miss one important aspect of these different ways of ‘thinking’: The amount of information that can be processed. Consciousness can only process a relatively small amount of information at once, while the processing capacity of the subconscious is much larger. Therefore, when we have to make a judgement and only take a few facts into account, conscious thought may lead to better results than the subconscious, while the subconscious appears to be better at forming overall impressions. When there are lots of factors to consider, conscious deliberation runs the risk of taking not all of the information into account, but basing the decision on just a few of the facts. Therefore, even when making complex, important decisions, it can often be better to listen to your gut feelings. And one of the pieces of advice your friends and family gave you earlier is actually based on this idea: Sleep on your decision. Often, being distracted for a while can help coming to a conclusion, and artists, authors and anyone else having to use their creativity will know that incubation (stepping away from a problem) can help tremendously in coming up with good solutions.

Overall, it can be said that not only simple, unimportant decisions are best made using the subconscious, but that even difficult and important decisions such as choosing a house are influenced greatly by our subconscious, because it provides a more global impression. This is why testing subconscious, implicit and automatic impressions is not only important when trying to predict the success of inexpensive items such as fast-moving consumer goods, but will also give a great deal of insight for more expensive goods (and related brands, advertising strategies and design).

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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Focus groups

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If you have ever developed a new product, packaging design or advert, you will probably have at least considered using a focus group. And it seems to make sense, seeing that they give potential customers a chance to express their opinions in an open, non-constricted way. Or do they? Focus groups are sometimes criticised because important decisions are based on the voice of just a few, and some critics say they kill innovation. A lot of the time people express wanting for things that already exist, or to quote Henry ford,

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

But looking at it from a psychological perspective, there are other things that should make you reconsider using focus groups – They are likely to give you an answer, but not the one you need to hear! Here is why:

People don’t understand their own motivations

In focus groups, people are asked to engage with a product or an idea, express their opinions and tell you why exactly they feel this way. In real life, people will more often than not pick a product without really thinking too hard about why they are choosing it over the alternatives. If you ask them why they picked it, they will probably be able to come up with some reasons, but these ‘reasons’ are not what made them pick it in the first place. There are hundreds and thousands of factors influencing people’s purchasing decisions that they are not aware of, let alone able to explain to you. Tiny details such as font sizes, colour schemes, what they subconsciously associate with the imagery and even store lighting and music can steer people to be more likely to choose or reject a product. People also tend to be incredibly bad at predicting their future behaviour, which makes the question ‘Would you buy this product?’ borderline irrelevant. In order to find out what really makes a difference to people’s behaviour and what doesn’t, you might want to use other methods than focus groups. You could for example observe actual behaviour and see how small changes affect it. Or you can test what stands out to people and has an impact on their emotions at the point of sale. Both of these approaches will give you more accurate answers than focus groups.

Unnatural interactions

Focus groups interact with products for minutes, discuss them with others and focus on details they would have never noticed in a shop. To understand product selections (which for most things take place in seconds), it is not necessarily productive to force these long interactions, but you should rather focus on the emotional impact of the product. For this, either try to simulate purchase situations as close to real life as possible, or look at the subconscious opinions people form in (milli-) seconds, like they would if they were standing in front of a shelf. The actual environment of focus groups poses another problem: How often do you do your supermarket shopping sitting in a circle with a group of strangers? Speaking of which:

10 people – 1 opinion

Focus groups are based on the assumption that group discussions can provide many different points of view in a productive, straight-forward way. But this assumption completely underestimates the effect that people have on one another. Think about it: Group therapy sessions are built around the idea that interactions with others change you, but focus groups somehow assume that people don’t influence each other’s opinions?

There are plenty of ways people influence one another in focus groups. Social desirability gets individuals to conform to the group consensus, because we have the drive to appear likeable to others. You might not think that others strongly influence your behaviour, but think back to the style of clothing that you used to wear in the past. Would you still feel comfortable wearing the outfits you wore 10 years ago today? Similarly to society as a whole, focus groups can change your view on what is desirable and what isn’t, and our natural strive for harmony and avoidance of conflict lead us to try and come to a consensus decision, being unable to critically evaluate facts and ignoring minority viewpoints. It’s different if you have a really strong opinion on something, but new cereal flavours and slightly different packaging designs are usually not something people feel strongly enough about to be happy to get into an argument over. It’s not always the majority that sets the direction, either: Often, persuasive individuals voicing their opinion enough times can be just as influential as several people singing from the same hymn sheet.

Similarly, people in focus groups may make others aware of minor details that they wouldn’t have noticed themselves, and make them justify decisions and opinions they wouldn’t have chosen on their own. And just as persuasive members of the focus group can steer discussions into one direction, it can also be the discussion leader who influences the group’s responses by asking leading questions, guiding the focus to particular features and focusing on responses that confirm how he or she already feels about the product. This is not done deliberately, but something we are all guilty of (forming an opinion and then seeking evidence that supports it – confirmation bias). Interviewers also put a lot of effort into putting participants into a comfortable, happy frame of mind while discussing the products, which again can be seen as removed from real-life shopping experiences. This can have a strong influence on the responses participants give, as being in a positive mood will make them more likely to voice positive opinions (possibly leaving out criticism they might be expressing otherwise).

Additionally, groups have the natural tendency to overestimate how much the outside world agrees with the group consensus, which can lead to small focus groups voicing their opinions so certainly and convincingly that one might think they really are a good representation of the average buyer. This ‘groupthink’ mentality has in the past led to disastrous political decisions (such as the Pig Bay invasion), and means that groups do not always come to the right conclusion, but feel like they have.

Is it ever worth it using a focus group?

Asking people for their opinion is of course not a bad idea, it is just important to consider that their answers might not paint the whole picture. It Is also possible to reduce some of the focus group risks by using skilled psychologists as moderators and having several people (who have not been involved in the research process up to that point) interpret the group’s opinions and overall group dynamic.

There is no doubt that others influence our behaviour, and that our family and friends can have strong influences on what we like and what we don’t. Therefore, it may be worth looking at group behaviour when testing certain products, but this has to happen in a setting that’s closer to real life than what focus groups are able to provide. It may be beneficial to test real, already existing social groups in naturalistic settings to answer specific questions regarding how groups make purchase decisions. However, this insight might not help much when trying to find out which products individual people will go for when standing in a supermarket aisle.

In summary, focus groups are probably going to give you an answer to your question – but it is most likely not the answer you need to hear in order to make your product successful. To achieve this, start basing your decisions on insight that comes from looking at the actual drivers of consumer behaviour, instead of listening to rationalisations made up by a handful of people.

Juliane Schulz, Mindlab

Mindlab offers the most accurate and effective market research available because we don’t just ask people what they think, we find out how they feel.


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