Change is the only constant
Since the Consumer Revolution in the 50s and 60s a lot of things have changed. Choice has proliferated; brands have been born, thrived or died. Marketing techniques have grown ever more sophisticated. We have moved from mass market to individual targeted and partnership marketing.
The Consumer has changed too and as radically. Initially, he or she was grateful for choice, loyally trustful of big brands and advertising claims and unaware of the marketing strategies and agendas. Consumption was good and motivation was seldom questioned — self-awareness was low and people were mainly deferential, honest, and positive.
The ground rules of qualitative research were developed in those times and in that atmosphere. The group discussion or focus group emerged as one of the main vehicles for small scale discussion and exploration. Supplemented by other tools like projective techniques, it helped open up new understanding about attitudes, behaviour, the dynamics of choice and brand values. And is still working well in the 21st century.
But the changing face of the Consumer demands a new generation of tools to keep the insights flowing. The 21st Century Consumer is an expert, a sophisticated, cynical and more demanding shopper. The relationship with brands has changed — as familiar companies become part of global conglomerates, trust diminishes, national identity disappears and doubts about integrity grow. And people have simply become more confident, more concerned to get value and more focused on their own values. They know what they want — but then again, the choice can be bewildering.
And in the world of qualitative research it's a truism that respondents have become marketing and media 'experts'. In the UK in particular, people are skilled in decoding advertising and using the kind of expressive phrases and imagery that we once had to access through projective exercises or storytelling. On the other hand, the impact of political correctness — and trying to second-guess what researchers want to hear — means that views can be held back or modified and potentially valuable insights lost.
Fight the good fight
Using conflict isn't new. Conflict Groups and devil's advocate techniques were being used in the 1970s. They were avant-garde then and used by relatively few researchers. Besides, it was difficult to whip up a good fight in those gentler and politer times. Constructive discussion, consensus and creativity got good results and conflict dropped quietly out of sight.
But now, as many markets are pretty well mapped and we struggle to bring out those elusive new insights, conflict can provide a powerful tool. Getting respondents to slug out the pros and cons of behaviour, concepts or brands from different points of view within a focus group or workshop can be very, very rewarding. 'Licensed' by the research situation — and guided by new moderating techniques — informants can be brutally honest, even rude and offensive, and forget political correctness. Managed skilfully, conflict has awesome powers of disclosure.
The first key to getting this to work is very careful structuring of the group make-up to ensure that two, three or even four different and polarised viewpoints are equally represented. The second is to avoid having a single 'authority figure' managing the processes. Two researchers co-moderating can work well but individual members of the group can be co-opted to act as advocate or questioner. The third is to forget all about non-directive interviewing — conflict needs to be encouraged and this means management of mood, intensity and direction to get the most from the process.
Off-the-peg or bespoke conflict?
There are quite a few conflict 'products' around with challenging names and high price tags. Some are ingenious and very complicated, requiring informants to be 'given' identities by their fellows to stir up animus from the start and using 'reality tv' techniques to encourage acting out resentments and soul-searching on camera. Others are simpler and more pragmatic. All to some extent are high risk — from time to time, informants will just refuse to be manipulated and will not disagree.
For my money, conflict is best used in conjunction with other techniques as part of extended workshop sessions. Conflict alone can bring new insight and catharsis — but it can also stall and bring a group to resentful stalemate. Using other techniques in the same session can lower this risk. Another reason to take a tailor-made approach is that markets differ significantly in the issues they raise, the values they access and the level of interest or animus they generate. Finding the polar groupings for recruitment just can't be done on a one-size-fits-all basis.
So let's get out there and fight for more and better insights!