Life Beyond The Focus Group

Lee Ryan
TNS, New Zealand

‘A working understanding of key concepts in Semiotics – including their practical application – can be seen as essential for everyone who wants to understand the complex and dynamic communication ecologies within (which) we live. Those who cannot understand such environments are in the greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can.’ Daniel Chandler, University of Aberswynth, Wales1)

Semiotics is a valuable research tool for market researchers, their clients and stakeholders. Internationally there is much discussion around the term “insight” – what it means and how can we deliver it. Qualitative research is defined by ESOMAR as “research that involves the use of unstructured exploratory techniques (such as group discussions and in-depth interviews) that are based on statistically small samples in order to understand a problem further.” Like other forms of market research, qualitative market research can be defined by its fieldwork, both what clients purchase and what researchers “do”. Qualitative market research can risk being commoditised as simply being focus groups and depths. Focus groups are not all we “do” but we need to continue to sell and incorporate other methodologies to enrich our sources of insight. This leads to an emphasis on developing our skills in a variety of forms of qualitative inquiry and to sell the quality of our thinking. Approaches beyond conventional focus groups include ethnography, decoding, semiotics, scenario playing, risk management – they can all play a role in facilitating insight.