Another Blow to Focus Groups and a Tip for Salespeople

I’d love to be able to tell you that I’m going to write this article about focus groups and I don’t care what you think, but that wouldn’t be true.

If you think back over the conversations you’ve initiated recently with people – particularly if you were speaking to someone whose opinion you valued, who you thought of as something of an expert on the matter – what was really at the heart of those exchanges?

When you choose to talk about your thoughts on your team’s performance last night, the film you’ve seen, or the new coat you’ve purchased, what are you getting out of such an exchange?

It’s likely that, neurologically-speaking, what you’re getting – or at least what you’re hoping and expecting to get – is the pleasure of that expert agreeing with you.

Recent research has shown that what other people think, particularly people whose opinions we care about, is highly significant at a neurological level.

Researchers asked a group of people to provide a list of songs that they liked but didn’t own, and then asked them to rate these songs on a ten point scale.

Then, whilst recording their brain activity with an fMRI scan, participants were shown two songs; one they had picked and one from a set of previously unknown songs by Canadian and Scandinavian artists. People were then told which of the two songs the ‘experts’ preferred.

The fMRI scans showed that the area of the brain associated with reward (the ventral striatum) became active when the ‘expert’ opinion tallied with their own.

In other words, people’s brains feel good when experts agree with them (a mechanism that I suspect is of enormous evolutionary significance to human development).

After finishing the exercise people were asked to rate their song choices again. The researchers also discovered that some people changed their opinions to coincide with the experts’ views.

These findings, which reinforce numerous other studies that have looked at the influence of others on people’s responses, highlight one of the biggest problems with market research focus groups: some people will change what they say and even what they think because of the responses of others.

Away from such influences would they say and think the same things? No.

Would they be susceptible to other influences – for example from a friend they are shopping with or the advice of the salesperson they happen to speak to? Yes.

So what have you learned from the focus group? Good question!

The research also highlights how powerful it is if you can demonstrate expertise for your own product or services. If your customer believes he is buying from an expert (and often customers would like to believe the person they are buying from is genuinely knowledgeable), finding out you agree with their opinion will make them feel good.

This emphasises the value of salespeople having and demonstrating their expertise and establishing the customer’s opinion before making recommendations or giving advice.

Customers like to feel in control, but they also find many purchases confusing and get overwhelmed by a large amount of choice.

Helping them to make a decision and endorsing it as an expert works at a neurological level!

Source: Daniel K. Campbell-Meiklejohn, Dominik R. Bach, Andreas Roepstorff, Raymond J. Dolan, Chris D. Frith. How the Opinion of Others Affects Our Valuation of Objects. Current Biology, 17 June 2010 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.04.055

Image courtesy: Rafael Mendoza

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