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Malcolm Tucker’s Guide on How to Use a Focus Group

Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It/In the LoopI was recently given The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC files – a book that is ostensibly the lost secret governmental files of one Malcolm Tucker, the political spin doctor featured in The Thick of It on TV and In The Loop in the cinema.

Among the many funny segments in the book is one particularly pertinent to this blog: a guide on how to use a focus group. He is referring primarily to political focus groups, but his points are applicable across the research spectrum.

Before dispensing his advice, Tucker makes it very clear (I’ve expunged most of the fruity language) that focus groups are not helpful. Among the reasons are

  • They are made up of members of the public who are intrinsically unreliable/ lop-sided/ racist/ mental
  • They are ‘run’ by marketing ‘people’
  • Putting a bunch of people with nothing better to do in an airless basement can’t end well – “At best, you’ll get a Downfall parody you can put on the net”

I think that is fair enough. Furthermore, his advice on getting the best from focus groups is better than some things I’ve heard from professional researchers:

  • Do not listen to one person in particular – one person is not representative of anything. Even if they agree with you.
  • If there is no consensus then ignore everything everyone says
  • If there is consensus, listen to it and then ask yourself if it is mad
  • If it isn’t mad, then give it serious consideration. After that, reject it out of hand as “the purpose of a focus group is to give the illusion that we are listening. It is not to form policy”. If it were, these people would be the Cabinet

Tucker also usefully identifies eleven types of people to beware of

  • Motorway Man – he spends a lot of time on the motorway so is, by definition, out of touch
  • Holby City Woman – “She watches Holby City. She is a human vacuum”
  • The Disillusioned Voter
  • The Young Person Who Went Straight From School To Working in a Key-Cutters – gets all his/her information from things mates have said in the pub
  • The Student – only there in the hope of getting free biscuits and red bull
  • The Woman Who Will Agree With Everything That Is Said Because That Is What She Thinks You Want
  • The Fucking Guardian Reader – “If you want to know what a Guardian reader thinks you can read the Guardian. Plus, that way, you get a crossword”
  • The Fucking Telegraph Reader – “A ruddy-faced village idiot who looks like he’s directly descended from Lord Melchett in Blackadder II
  • The Local Business Man – only interested in issues concerning him
  • Dot Cotton’s Younger, Less Glamorous Sister – only there for a bit of company
  • The Fucking Weirdo Who Says Stuff Either Too Quiet Or Too Loud Which Doesn’t Make Sense And Trails Off Into Nothing Or Ends Mid-Thought Thereby Making Everyone Feel Uncomfortable – ignore them. Unless they’re in charge of the focus group

The final points to bear in mind are:

  • The Under 30s are too young to know anything
  • People between the age of 30 and 40 are only interested in stuff that directly pertains to them/their children
  • “The Over 40s are losing their faculties and no longer able to absorb or process information properly”

“And remember: People talk shit. They talk even more shit when they are asked to manufacture opinions on subjects they are totally ignorant of and/or couldn’t give a gnat’s anus about”.

Sound advice. For more of his (along with Nicola, Olly, Glenn, Terri and Jamie’s) pearls of wisdom, go get the book

sk