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Focus groups are the wrong way to understand voters

Although they’ve been around since the ’50’s, focus groups came to public awareness during Tony Blair’s time as PM. Since then they've become short-hand for spin, inauthenticity and the general move towards the centre ground.

In the current UK election we are seeing something different, with parties offering real choices based on ideas and policies, more willing to take a stand and prepared to face criticism. Interestingly, the media have been slow to spot this with TV and newspapers getting into a tizzy about this break with the bland, painting politicians as radical when, in fact, the public are clearly saying they prefer genuine ideas to meaningless platitudes.

I blame reliance on focus groups for this lag in spotting the cultural shift. As any practitioner knows, focus groups are ‘norming’ events. They aggregate thinking. Good moderators can get a lot more out of a group than a bad moderator, but however well you do it, the results tend to smooth the outcome into something more palatable for public scrutiny.

I’m not even going to get into how groups are recruited, or whether you conduct groups with floating voters, the party faithful or ‘conflict groups’. And don’t get me started on vox pops… The net result is the same. It’s a public declaration of opinion and that’s very different from how people feel at a personal and intimate level.

We don’t vote in groups, we do it alone, often unsure of what we think or feel, often discombobulated and confused by the rhetoric we’ve been bombarded with over the months (and even years) leading up to this moment.

Evidence of this is seen in the increasingly useless polls which consistently miss the ‘shy’ voter. In the UK it’s mostly Tories and UKIPers, who don’t want to admit to others and even, sometimes, to themselves, that they have a selfish streak. Equally, strident outspoken socialists tend to be over-represented.

Focus groups are not good for detecting these deeper, emotional, less rational internal processes which eventually crystallise into making a cross in that little booth on Election Day. The similarity to a confessional is amusing. Father, forgive me, part of me knows this is wrong but I’m voting for…..

A better methodology is a face-to-face conversation with voters, in home, over a cup of tea. Sometimes this might be a paired depth, with two members of the same household. A good moderator will get to see and will even help the respondent uncover these hidden and even unconscious concerns, thoughts, opinions, dilemmas and hopes.

Plenty of one-to-one interviews already happen in this arena, but they don't get the prominence they deserve and the evidence they uncover isn’t integrated enough into political strategy or media understanding of what’s really going on.

When it comes to politics, let's drop the focus groups and start having real conversations.

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