Grant Gooding, PROOF, revealed how focus groups and customer interviews can sabotage marketing at AMA Madison’s Craft Marketing presentation on July 27th. In his presentation, Grant broke down five reasons for this phenomenon and shared alternative strategies that marketers should focus on instead.

Grant began with a fundamental truth behind marketing: Marketers must understand their customers’ emotions. After all, humans are highly emotional beings. But quantifying said emotion is incredibly difficult – the science isn’t there yet, Grant explained.

While we can’t quantify human emotion, we can examine the behavior that is driven by our customers’ emotions.

During the presentation, Grant broke this down into five reasons why focus groups and customer interviews ruin marketing efforts:

  1. People Lie
  2. People Attempt to Justify their Emotional Decisions with Logic
  3. Your Interviewees are not a Representative Sample of Your Buyer
  4. You Can’t Repeat an Emotional Purchasing Moment
  5. People Are Influenced by Your Presence

5 Reasons Why Focus Groups and Customer Interviews are Ruining Your Marketing

People Lie

Everybody lies. All the time. It’s just human nature. Grant explained that we can break this behavior into two categories:

Intentional Lying

Whether a selfish lie or an altruistic lie, lying can operate as a social lubricant or even a social norm of politeness.

Selfish lies, for example, can help us make a positive impression or fit into social norms, such as claiming that we always recycle, when in fact, our record may not be so squeaky clean.

Altruistic lies, on the other hand, are little white lies. In American culture, little white lies are socially acceptable as polite behavior. Grant explained that while altruistic lies can exist relatively harmlessly in every life, they don’t fly in a research setting.

Unintentional Lying

Simple principles of neuroscience can easily explain unintentional lying. In fact, our brains automatically fill in gaps in our memory and remember these “fill-ins” as if they occurred in real life.

For example, Grant shared that the American Psychological Association conducted a long-term study examining the accuracy of American people’s memories regarding the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Researchers asked study participants to record their personal experiences on this tragic day. Specifically, study participants were asked to handwrite their personal experiences on this tragic day in detail. This list included how they first learned about the attacks, where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when they first heard about them, as well as what they did for the rest of the day. After initially answering these questions, participants were asked to answer them again in one year, again in five years, and once more in ten years.

The results? The participants’ answers changed each time. Grant explained that the brain operates similarly to how a timeline would work. A timeline might indicate major events using hash marks of varying thickness rates based on implied significance. Similarly, our brains often remember traumatic and/or significant events in greater detail. If you had participated in this study, three out of the five answers you wrote down would have been correct, statistically.

Our takeaway? This is a primary reason we must be careful when considering the visceral recall of why a customer acted or behaved the way they did. Our memories aren’t reliable in many situations.

People Attempt to Justify Their Emotions with Logic

The second reason focus groups and customer interviews can sabotage marketing: The fallacy of logical thinking. The brain naturally defaults to logical thinking when it comes time to justify its emotions. Often, doing so makes us look better.

For example, if someone asked you how you chose your current car, you’ll give a logical brain response, like “I got a good deal,” or “The gas mileage was pretty good,” which makes you look like a logical, savvy consumer. It improves your image all-around. Still, if this isn’t the true driver of your purchasing decision, the truth silently remains beneath, be it “I got a big promotion and wanted the world to know it,” or “I just wanted a shiny black SUV.”

When you interview your customers, you truly have no way of ensuring that they’re telling the truth. Are they defaulting to the logical explanation for their emotions? Or are they revealing the truth? You’ll never know for sure. As a result, the “data” that these justifications produce are unreliable. Far too unreliable to be a driving force behind your marketing decisions.

Your Interviewees Are Not a Representative Sample of Your Buyer

Grant then introduced the outlier principle, which rules that the “best” customers you interview are likely outliers.

Think about it: if you were to name your top ten customers who would be suitable for an interview or case study, who would you choose? It’s common to naturally gravitate towards customers who possess certain traits, like having a high likelihood to agree to participate or simply being one of your “best” customers. The ones you believe are significant, the shining stars you wish you could “multiply” to get more customers like them. But they are your ideal vision of who your customer should be, not necessarily an accurate representation of most of your customers.

But not only are your interviewees likely to be statistical outliers, but their opinions also are statistically irrelevant. You may get some exciting feedback from conducting these interviews, but they are far from reliable data. As Grant put it, interviews can provide compelling hypotheses, but they aren’t so helpful for proving them.

You Can’t Repeat an Emotional Purchasing Moment

Emotional purchasing moments are simply that: emotional. If a buyer isn’t “in the market” for your product, or if they lack the desire to purchase it, you’re getting imperfect information.

Additionally, in a focus group setting, individuals may fall victim to groupthink or feel pressured to respond similarly to fellow members. This phenomenon goes against how we naturally make purchasing decisions, which automatically renders the responses you get useless.

The “You” Bias

As the interviewer or focus group organizer, you are naturally biased, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This fundamental truth is why research studies require a third party to run the show. However, even without knowing it, you’re likely to lead interviewees in one direction or another when leading discussions.

Many thanks to our presenter, Grant Gooding of PROOF, Greg Mischio of Winbound, moderator and event sponsor, plus all our attendees and volunteers.

What You Should Do to Ensure You Don’t Ruin Your Marketing & Communications

To avoid these pitfalls, Grant suggests that marketers use qualitative data and then use quantitative data. Treat interview ideas posited by your interviewees as hypotheses, and use a quantitative method to test these hypotheses.

Finally, Grant reminded presentation attendees that while big data helps answer the Who, What, When, Where, and How, emotional data helps us answer the Why.

See You Online for July’s Craft Marketing

Craft Marketing invites you to its next event at 4 PM on August 31st, 2021 where Eagan Heath of Caravan Digital and Get Found Madison will present “Three Must-Have Strategies for Ecommerce (Social, Search, Email).”

Register here for the online event.


Kara Martin, Content Writer at Naviant, specializes in written B2B content, from case studies to blogs. She transforms complex technical information into compelling, data-driven content.

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