Are focus groups any good?

“Unconscious thoughts are the most accurate predictors of what people will actually do,” Zaltman said in an interview. “In the space of 5 or 10 minutes in a focus group, which is the average airtime per person, you can’t possibly get at one person’s unconscious thinking.”

Evidence suggests focus group participants often lie. “The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative,” writes Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman in his influential book How Customers Think. After all, he notes, 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots–virtually all of which are screened by focus groups–routinely fail in the marketplace.

My take: Some people lie outright, but mostly we don’t know what we really want, when confronted with a choice outside of context. Have you ever had the feeling that you cannot specify your reservation price in advance, but must first hear the relevant offer? I feel this way all the time, despite being perceived by my friends as a relatively definite and thoughtful personality type.

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