The maligned focus group participant

How do you avoid the dominant person taking over a focus group?  That is probably the most asked question in the history of running focus groups.  The concern that one person will overshadow all the other points of view and ruin the groups.

The quick answer is – trust us!  We can cope with a dominant talker that’s why you’re paying us!  The longer answer is much more complex.  It’s very easy to dismiss this type of respondent as a problem and therefore by doing this, you subconsciously or consciously, negate their views.  But in real life people are swayed by other people all the time, a very passionate believer in something may very well sway someone who is just sitting on the fence. For the film buffs out there – who remembers 12 Angry men?  A brilliant example of how a lone voice can change minds.  Now our dominant respondent may not be as charismatic as Henry Fonda but his or her views will still be very much valid.

The example of the New Coke marketing fiasco is a great example where the loud minority were largely ignored during the focus group research and the result was a disaster for Coke.  When ‘New Coke’ was launched in 1985 the change in taste was credited to the consumer blind testing that had been conducted that had been very positive. However, what had been ignored was the emotional response to changing such an iconic brand. The backlash that followed meant that by 1986 New Coke was no more. Previous focus groups had explored this emotional link and the mistake of Coke Cola was to ignore the passion of the few and the influence this had on others.

In her book ‘Diving Desire, Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation, Liza Featherstone states ‘The New Coke fiasco shows that the focus group is a unique way for a company to learn how consumers can be affected by each other’s opinions.’

There are other examples where emotions can be more influential than the numbers suggest – think Brexit or the US Presidential elections. The value of qualitative research is to identify and explore the impact of emotion and how the minority voice may win in the end. Indeed, it is the skill and role of the focus group experts to explore and understand how the dynamics of the group may be comparable to the real marketplace.

A skilled facilitator will know the difference between a) a domineer who is actually helping the process and illustrating how views can be changed and b) someone who is just disruptive because they’ve had a bad day.  In our experience, it’s rarely the latter, and the former can help illustrate some of the potential influences that need to be understood and considered when taking a product or service to market.

Personally, I like the loud respondent, they are often easiest to deal with, can spark off debate by ruffling the feathers of the group and are confident enough to be politely asked to withhold comment to let others speak.  Observing how others in the group respond to the domineer can help take the discussions to a much deeper place, will they be swayed? What is their counter point of view? Can the domineer be swayed?  What is real-life? After all isn’t a healthy debate what focus groups are all about?

So, the moral of the story – don’t ignore the dominant people, they may be in the minority numerically, but their potential to influence other consumers may be immeasurable. Oh, and please trust your facilitator to have the wisdom to know the difference between a good and bad domineer and the skills to work with them to enhance not detract from your research – honestly the dominant participant isn’t the problem you think it is!


Image credit: ID 38557372 © Rudiestrummer |