For years, people have been predicting the death of focus groups. I may have even penned such an article. The truth, however, is more like Mark Twain's quote, "news of my death has been greatly exaggerated." Focus groups are still the go-to qualitative methodology of choice for marketers and researchers.
But, then along comes technology and the world changes. Mobile ethnography is one of those changes. The ownership levels and capabilities of today's smart phones has presented us with a powerful tool called mobile ethnography. I started doing consumer-generated ethnographies almost ten years ago. We would send research participants small digital video cameras, together with a project workbook that provided instructions about how and what we wanted them to capture. The core advantage of this methodology was that we see what the consumers sees and simultaneously hear what they are thinking. It was this "presence" that turned out to be the key advantage of this approach versus in-person ethnographies and focus groups. We are still using this methodology, but now, we are using smart phone apps as the tool.
The great thing about smart phones is the consumer interface. They are pretty easy and intuitive for consumers to use thanks to Apple's philosophy being applied to this appliance. With our app, we can send out activities for consumers to do, calling for photos, videos, notes and tags. This combination of capabilities provides a robust, flexible pallet to design our research to address a plethora of learning objectives, some of which are just not feasible with focus groups due to their "time and place" constraints.
The biggest advantage I have experienced, however, is the ability to have an ongoing dialogue with the consumer. When the consumer posts a submission, say like the one shown above, I can follow-up with a comment or question to build on my understanding, adding a creative, spontaneous opportunity to generate insights. Here again, this is a big advantage versus focus groups, where my ability to follow up and probe is, at best, constrained. You know how it goes, pass a note to the moderator, they ask the question and you are done. And, of course, you end up asking the question to the whole room.
So, to answer my own question of whether mobile ethnography will replace focus groups, the answer is that there is a time and a place for both, but I am finding that, given the value and flexibility of mobile ethnographies, the time and place for focus groups is becoming less frequent. What are your thoughts?
This blog offers stories and discussions on how to build more relevance and differentiation for brands. The author is Timothy Coffey, Chief Revolutionist of Launchforce Strategy, a consumer research consultancy that specializes in highly creative qualitative methods. His experience ranges from brand and research management at Procter & Gamble to innovation management at Tupperware to founding and leading an integrated marketing strategy agency. He is the author of three books, Innovation Myths & Mythstakes, The New Super Consumer, Mom&Kid, and The Great Tween Buying Machine.