If this blog post was an animal, what kind of animal would it be? This is the kind of seemingly nonsensical question dear to newsgroup coverage. But it’s worth asking what kind of animal a politician would be, because the answers draw on a wide range of characteristics and emotional responses.
Asking people to choose an animal extracts expressive responses from those who are less comfortable with words. It offers answers that tap into our instincts and subconscious rather than just prompting people to give a rational, thoughtful response.
The small size of focus groups
What a focus group is not, however, is an opinion poll of a representative sample. What is lost by the smallness of the sample (risk of atypical responses) is compensated by the depth of what is heard.
A focus group consists of inviting a small number of people – often in isolated numbers, very rarely more than twenty – for a discussion lasting more than an hour. Participants can all come from a target niche, such as swing voters, older men, or college students.
Often they are given different stimuli to which they must respond, such as the screening of a short video clip of a politician or the design of a poster. And sometimes there will be the seemingly wacky question like what kind of animal would a politician be.
Focus groups should not involve percentages
Focus group results, at least when done properly, involve very few numbers. To be told that 25% of an eight-person focus group agrees with a particular point of view makes the conclusion appear overly precise, given the small sample size.
Giving percentages when talking about a focus group treats it like a survey with a small sample – and therefore a huge margin of error. (If 50% of a focus group of eight people gave the same answer to a particular question, this result comes with a standard margin of error of plus or minus 35%, which puts the range of probable truth between
15% and 85%.)
Focus groups are not surveys
A focus group is not a small survey. It’s very different. What makes a great focus group is a participant’s incisive quote that reflects the mood of the audience, not the production of detailed statistics. These quotes are often memorable and can have a huge impact. “Get Brexit done” – the Conservatives’ victorious slogan in the 2019 UK general election – emerged from focus group comments.
But to understand public opinions, always check the color of what focus groups say against the digital context of what public polls say.
The power of focus groups
This is why the best use of focus groups to understand politics is in tandem with opinion polls. Focus groups can help explore issues to identify the best questions to ask in surveys and how to frame those questions – then when you have the survey results, focus groups can help explain the reasons and motivations behind them. -tend the results.
To reap these benefits, you need enough focus groups to be confident in their findings, because any focus group can be missing.
Unlike polls and sample size, there is no similar rule of thumb for focus groups. But beware of any discovery based on just one. This may be driven by understandable time or budget restrictions, such as a media outlet following an election debate, but it is still very fragile information.
What starts to become trustworthy is a series of focus groups. Credit to Times Radio, currently the main commissioner of public discussion groups on UK politics: they run a discussion group every month, covering similar topics. So while each person should be treated with care, you can look for — and trust — patterns over time.
Even better is when you look at focus groups and opinion polls in tandem. Indeed, focus groups are no more an alternative to opinion polls than vowels are an alternative to consonants. On the contrary, they are both best used in combination with each other. Polls can tell you the what, focus groups the why.
Learn more about focus groups and political polls in my book Polling Unpacked: history, uses and abuses of political opinion polls.