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Trump vs. Fox News signals a major focus group fail

Rob Enderle | Aug. 18, 2015
The recent Republican debate and Fox News coverage of Donald Trump reminded columnist Rob Enderle why Steve Jobs hated focus groups.

Donald Trump

I was reminded of why Steve Jobs hated focus groups when I watched the Fox News coverage of the Republican debate, specifically with respect to Donald Trump. Part of that coverage was to have a focus group expert query a captive focus group about their pre- and post-debate impressions -- he instead showcased why most firms should never use focus groups.  

In a nutshell, focus groups are really lousy at predicting anything and while they can be good at analyzing past behavior, they are so easily manipulated they generally turn out to be less than worthless (because they can lead folks to believe in a world that doesn't exist). As a result, it is rare you can depend on their results.

I spent a lot of my life doing market studies and I've both been in and funded focus group studies. Only in some very narrow instances would I ever consider using them. Let me walk you through why.

What a focus group is

A focus group is a way of sampling a population in order to determine why they did something or what they will do in a given situation. In order for it to work it has to be both representative of the population and not be corrupted by any aspect of the focus group process. The goal isn't lots of drama, the goal is to gain understanding. Its advantage over doing other forms of sampling is you can pick up emotions you wouldn't get out of a questionnaire and, done right, the responses are typically far more nuanced and granular.  

Why a focus group doesn't work for prediction

This was primarily what Jobs objected to and he was right. One of my first focus group experiences was for Chrysler. They wanted to know if we would buy a new car they were considering and after showing us the car most of us said absolutely, and then the car came out and it didn't sell that well. This goes to the heart of why focus groups suck at predicting things. By the time the Chrysler car shipped, Ford and Chevy had both improved their lines so that the alternatives were better and ultimately overshadowed the Chrysler. In addition, Chrysler had gone cheap in areas we weren't aware of in the focus group. So while the car still looked great the actual driving experience wasn't that good.  

So to make a predictive focus group work you have to emulate the full experience. In this case of a car buying experience, the complete process someone is likely to go through includes other car choices available and unless you're capable of precognition (in which case you don't need the focus group) chances are you can't accurately create an environment that matches the future when the decision final will be made.  


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