Do dominant personalities sway participants in focus groups?

It is almost inevitable that during the course of a set of focus groups one of the backroom observers will point to a participant with a strong personality and say, “I think that person is leading the other participants.” After almost twenty years of watching and conducting focus groups the idea that B2B decisions makers can be so easily swayed by an individual with a strong personality seems like the market research equivalent of the boogeyman. The truth is that in any group discussion—company meeting, book club group, or focus group—some individuals have stronger personalities and voice their opinions more vigorously; it is the nature of group discussions.

B2B decision makers spend their lives in meetings with a range of individuals and personality types. They have to fight to have their voices heard, protect their budgets and get their projects green lighted. Why would they turn into wall flowers when they enter a focus group room and why would they kowtow to another participant who they don’t know and who doesn’t have any power over them? In reality they don’t. When you read the transcripts from the groups and review the individual exercises which are designed to protect against group think you find that the vast majority of people stick with their opinions. They may be more concise in their responses and may not necessarily defend their opinions as vigorously, but their opinions do not change.

In many cases the participants with the strongest personalities simply provide the best summary for what the group is feeling. Moderators always say we aren’t looking for consensus, but this is a half-truth. We want honest responses but we also don’t really want ten different opinions; we cannot do much in the way of analysis with a data set that looked like that.

Backroom observers sometimes become too focused on what people are saying in real-time and miss some key insights from the discussion. It’s not just what they say, but also what they don’t say. When an “average” individual has a neutral reaction to a product concept, list of pain points, value proposition, ad copy, etc. they tend to say very little. This is true even in one-on-one depth interviews. In these situations the strongest personalities have the most to say and fill the vacuum with their own voice and opinions.  In that situation the key insight is what the rest of the group didn’t say, not what the blowhard did.

Strong personalities do present moderating challenges. They have a tendency to stray off topic, can provide long-winded answers and can get confrontational when the moderator reels them back in. Good moderators know how to handle these individuals and see their kin in almost every group they conduct. The greater challenge is typically eliciting the response from the reclusive participant.

On the flip side of the domineering personality coin, when the participant with the strong personality reacts positively to the product concept, value proposition, ad copy, etc. and the rest of the group remains neutral, thus silent, the backroom observers tend to attribute positive descriptors such as “They really know their stuff,” “They are more sophisticated than the others,” “That is the kind of people we really wanted in the group” to the individual. That same personality type is no longer leading the group, but is now the only one that “gets it.”

The dynamics described here will always be present in any group discussion – focus groups included. That said, you don’t need to fear the dominate participant boogeyman. Instead just go into the observation room with open ears and listen for what is said, but also what is not. And remember, one-on-one depth interviews are always option for qualitative research if you get over the blowhards.