Ancient Greeks and The Focus Group

aristotleI’ve never had anyone wear a toga to one of my focus groups. (Once, a bearded man walked in wearing a floral-print sarong and introduced himself as “the premier ass-waxer” in the city. He went by the name of Bambi. And, yes, he was a great respondent.)

Now that I have your attention, I’ll ask for a bit of patience. There is a connection between togas and focus groups, but it’s a meandering path. Last summer, Market Strategies launched a center of excellence for qualitative research. We already were doing a lot of qualitative research—well over $10 million a year—but we wanted our qualitative practice to rival the breadth of expert staff and innovative track record of our quant practice. The effort has entailed hiring more than a dozen senior researchers from a variety of backgrounds, including brand consulting, advertising and behavioral sciences. A few of my peers have asked what prompted such a large investment in qualitative methods, especially at a time when so much of the research industry is moving toward “a world without questions,” where we rely on methods like big data, social media monitoring and neuroscience to find answers without ever engaging a respondent in a dialogue. All of those methods have a home at Market Strategies and merit their own investments—but none is about to replace qualitative research.

Our mission is to help clients make confident business decisions—but confidence is a subjective and variable trait. For some people, confidence comes from a robust sample and precise measurements. For many senior decision-makers, however, we continue to find that the voice of the customer—the literal voice of the customer—is irreplaceable. Quantitative research does numerous things that qualitative methods can’t begin to duplicate, but before a CxO is willing to place a major bet on a new product or reposition a brand, it’s rare that confidence comes without actually listening to potential customers in real-time. Conviction comes most powerfully from the evidence we gather with our own senses and in-person methods, in particular, remain unparalleled for generating conviction.

And that’s where the Greeks come in. Or Aristotle, anyway. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle notes that there are three principal components of any argument:

  • Logos (which is Greek for ‘word’), and which refers to the logical claims of an argument—its clarity, its evidence, its internal logic.
  • Pathos (Greek for ‘experience’…or, curiously, ‘suffering’—but I’ll leave that for another blog), which is a speaker’s ability to evoke an emotional response in the audience.
  • Ethos (Greek for ‘character’), which refers to a speaker’s credibility—how the perception of the speaker’s character affects the perception of the message itself.

Survey research is a brilliant tool for isolating the kernel that underlies logos—for stripping away the elements of persuasion that go beyond the pure logical appeal of an argument. But the lived experience of hearing that argument come from a flesh-and-blood person—a person you feel you can take the measure of (ethos) and whose passion you feel as you listen to them convey their own experience through stories (pathos)—carries a rhetorical weight that top-two-box scores struggle to match. Any seasoned qualitative researcher has seen the way that research stakeholders will continue to refer to notable respondents by name, in some cases years after the research is done. Because of the rhetorical power of human speech—the simultaneous experience of logos, ethos and pathos—it’s no surprise that the highest-stakes projects are the ones that always require video reels. As Aristotle knew, great rhetoric compels conviction. And conviction is the catalyst for business action.

This may not be fair (at least, not in a Vulcan outcomes analysis) and it may not even be uniformly good. We’ve all seen a stakeholder get carried away by one particularly credible respondent who made a brilliantly impassioned argument, even though it contradicted the general trend of the findings. But, used responsibly, qualitative research is a powerful tool for helping us create the conviction that leads to confident business decisions, particularly when experienced in person. Through his thoughtful demeanor and articulate responses, “Bambi” deployed all the classical tools of Aristotelian rhetoric and—despite the sarong—helped move a Fortune 500 company’s strategy forward as the result.

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