Nature isn't the only one who abhors a vacuum. Most business people are similarly afflicted when confronted by an absence of information. Or at least we act that way.

Because we are caught up in the mythology that tells us that business decisions are based on a logical and empirical process, the role of market research has continued to swell. Increasingly, everything from macro decisions about business strategy, to smaller choices about which brochures to produce, are governed by what we like to call "user feedback."

And with this reliance on research comes an explosion in the research techniques and methodologies available. Most studies fall into the two broad categories of quantitative and qualitative -- with the former referring to large-scale studies that are statistically valid, and the latter involving small-scale work that is "directionally" useful.

Large-scale research, which is increasingly conducted on the Internet, ranges from "AA&U Studies (Awareness, Attitude and Usage), to in-home use testing of products, to simulation studies where market size, market share and revenue are projected for companies who want that insight before committing serious dollars to launching a new product or service.

Small-scale research includes focus groups, one-on-one-interviews, and a buzzy practice that has become all the rage: ethnography.

Ethnography, which has been imported straight from anthropological research, involves observation -- technically called field work -- of consumers (or end users) in action and in their environment. So if you were researching the way consumers interact with, say, paper towels, you would go into their homes and videotape them in action. You would learn which kinds of spills were appropriate for a sponge or the quicker-picker-upper. You would obsess over the way consumers slide the roll onto the dispenser and carefully study the wrist action involved with tearing off the sheets.

Similarly, if you were a manufacturer of food service mustard dispensers, you would spend a lot of time observing the way consumers squirted their condiments onto their hot dogs and hamburgers. How high do their hold it from the spout? How much do they normally waste?

With so much research being done -- and with so many important decisions being based on its outcome -- it's reasonable to pose the question: Are we over-relying on what is, at best, an inexact science? Are we using research as a crutch because we are reluctant to make decisions based on our own judgment and instincts?

On one level, it's hard to argue against using research as a way to understand your market and guide the decision process. After all, at the end of the day the dogs have to eat the dog food (a horrendously clichéd marketing truism I thought I would burden you with). But in my experience I am seeing an over-reliance on research that I believe is often doing more harm than good. What follows is what I hope will be some useful counsel about focus groups; in later columns I'll deal with how to make the most of other methodologies.

Focus groups are most useful in the very early stages of a marketing or advertising project, for some basic diagnostic insight into how a group of consumers or buyers think about a category and the competitors within it. But you need to keep in mind that for the most part, the participants may think they're being honest, but they're not. They are defending or rationalizing decisions they have already made. They are giving you the socially acceptable answer. They are trying to come across as smart and rational, when we know that most decisions are driven by a messy blend of right and left brain.

For the most part, you're listening to liars. So a useful exercise is to imagine what your marketing decisions would be if you proceeded from that assumption. Here's an example. Let's say you operate a group of termite and insect control franchises in a three state area. You've done some focus groups to figure out why your business is flat when the termite population is actually growing.

In the groups, homeowners claim that the reason they aren't protecting their homes is that their busy and haven't gotten around to it. If you took that at face value, you would step up your marketing efforts -- direct mail, local newspaper advertising, maybe search marketing on the Internet -- to remain top-of-mind. But the reason they aren't using termite services might be something they'd rather not talk about: They're planning on selling their houses in a few years, and they see termite protection as a long-term proposition. It's a behavior driven by the recent, rapid increase in housing prices and the resulting trade-up phenomenon.

This isn't exactly a flattering thing to say, so it's no surprise it didn't come up in the groups. But if that acutely practical -- and selfish -- consideration is what drives the category, your marketing response would need to recognize it. So your strategy would have to find a way to address that in a clever way. One response: your messaging approach, whether in direct mail or advertising, would communicate the problems of selling a house that has termite damage. You would use first-person stories, i.e. "How a $250 termite program would have saved me $25,000 when I sold my house." But if you listened slavishly to the focus group response, you would have missed the selfish reality that drives the purchase decision.

Another dangerous thing about focus groups: There's something in them for everybody. I can't tell you how many times I've watched people observe the same focus groups, with each camp firmly convinced that the sessions validated their going-in perspective. Which is why, more often than not, this kind of research is more about self-validation than any real learning. And even though everyone nods in agreement when the point is made that this small-scale research is for directional purposes only, and isn't definitive, I can't tell you how many times ideas and programs are nuked or advanced based on what 10 people had to say.

So if you're going to embark on groups, my advice is to force everyone who attended the sessions to write a report that points out a) the problem with their idea that the groups brought forward, and b) positive energy around other ideas different than their own. Since the observers are usually those who dreamed up what is being tested, this exercise will force people to separate from their intellectual possessions.

The bottom line: listening and learning aren't always joined at the marketing hip. Doing a couple of quick focus groups can result in more indigestion than insight unless you are as attuned to what you don't hear as what you do.

Published on: May 1, 2005