Death of the Focus Group

Think about the last focus group you ran or attended.  Be honest with yourself.  Why did you have the focus group?  And what, exactly did you learn from it?

I always tell my clients that focus groups serve a real, and valuable purpose, and that they must be used judiciously to make sure we're using the right tool for the task at hand.  But then I noticed that I'm using them less and less frequently.  They don't seem to be very helpful in learning deeply about consumers' lives.  One-on-one interviews are much more helpful to do that.  They also don't seem to be very helpful in evaluating new product concepts, as group-think often obscures real opinions.  Add to that, the numbers are too small to use them to quantitatively infer the behavior of the larger population with a high degree of confidence.

So why are we using them?  I had one client tell me that she used focus groups because it was an easy way to get others in the company to participate.  They could drop in and out from behind the glass, and at least have some exposure to their consumers.  Another client told me that they are used in her company because they were an "accepted" method of gathering market research, and they could easily obtain the funding to run them.

I can see using focus groups when I have an idea of what I want to learn, and I want to collect some basic information to help me to know which areas I'd like to probe more deeply.  It's a safe, middle of the road tool.  What I'm finding, however, is that as we become more focused on who our consumers are and we become more adept at using online tools to collect this basic learning, the focus group is becoming less relevant for me.

I'm curious to know if others are having similar experiences.  Is there greater value we should be getting from focus groups?  Or are they a tool that will become less relevant in the future?