The Client Wants Focus Groups and You Believe in Ethnography… What to do?

July 28, 2013

in convo, ethnographers tools, ethnography, focusgroups, research

When a client asks for focus groups and you believe in ethnography what do you do?

You value-add to the focus group program. You get subtle on how you do it rather than trying to force them into a choice between the two. You wait for the ah-ha moment later. I’ve been involved in many projects over the last few years for clients that really believe what they want is focus groups. I’ll never debate that with them (unless I know them really well). It is even more important if you are just on the end of an RFP and in many cases we are; typically for international firms doing exploratory and new product research. They then send researchers and staff out. There are two things you can do….

  1. Treat them as a few focus group events. Forget the fact that they are “away from home”.
  2. Or add to the learning experience.

I’m a big fan of doing the second. It is where we can bring ethnography into play. It’s perhaps easier when people have traveled far and are in foreign lands although I think it should apply at all times. Grassroots, opening your eyes to what’s around you complements the groups. It won’t change them, it may add richness and understanding to the guide.  Most importantly, it can provide valuable context.

So what do we (at Convo) like to  do? 


We try to bring in “market” visits. Visiting stores, following the milkman etc. It is exploratory, the opportunity for a little show n answer. Often works well to help put things in a cultural context. Examples. How are you going to understand “cars” in Mumbai if you don’t see them washed daily (not by the owner), a gas station visit (argh the under hood probing), the parking lot security check, a showroom, and hours in traffic. Similarly, you won’t understand food unless you start visiting supermarkets, stalls, and seeing what people buy on the street.  Or understand the notion of chai breaks in offices. I could go on!

Go to a few homes in addition:
Even when it isn’t part of the “groups” per se’ we try to get our clients into homes, or offices of our participants or profiles.


You can listen all day in a focus group to how people use an ingredient and simply fail to grasp that almost no one has an oven in India. One visit can clean up such misconceptions. It may also identify the role of the maid or the kitchen help. Will it matter if your food is served in “steel” and what’s the implications later. How do you think of innovations around milk products when there is a huge chain of milk processing that happens within each home. I could provide example after example of how companies have really missed the basics by not spending the time to go beyond the guide or a focus group. This is particularly true of many multi-nationals where R&D is often concentrated far away from the market.

Bring the client home: I’ve observed the power of this now many times. Particularly when in foreign lands. Clients get tired of traveling, want a safe place, and often some simple food. It’s another look and understanding and it provides context around “you” the researcher / ethnographer that the client can take back home; I hope as a friend and an ally.

In these ways we may not get a day long ethnographic study or inquiry. The slices and images will be shorter, and we know we can always go back for more. Still it gets the message across that we’re “watching” not just listening to what they say. That’s also useful input when it comes to doing a better job of moderating the groups.

As a little reinforcement of this principle. When we work – even if the client isn’t involved we do our market snooping, talking to others etc. That’s curiosity and it should be embedded into every research project you do. For without it… there are no breakthroughs.

As a client: ask yourself if your research company is prepared to get curious, go out on a limb and take you out and about. Could you simply push in one or two one-on-one interviews on the days of the focus groups. This is often at a marginal additional cost. Can you think of “adjacent” exploratory areas that might stimulate further thinking around your focal questions? Who else might you like to meet? What might you like to see and learn more about? What a tremendous opportunity is is, to learn, in-market.

Note and a little plug: we love running our Learning Journey programs and have urged a few Clients into working those into research programs and projects!

  • Vivek Ramji

    Thanks for posting! Great lesson on “how to manage the client.” But if the Ethno interviews are only a marginal additional cost why would a client choose to listen to broken records at focus groups?

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