A coffee klatch in a high school gym is no substitute for actionable and methodical opinion research

I was recently confronted with a question from a client who asked me, quite sincerely, why he should hire my firm to conduct focus group testing for a new building initiative his school district was exploring that would be funded with an 8-figure bond issue requiring voter approval. After asking him where it was conducted (his high school cafeteria), who was invited (parents he knew personally were the only ones who showed up) and who facilitated the session (he did), I then asked him to share his assessments of the levels of candor and new information he gleaned from it. He was frank in admitting that he really did not hear anything he had not heard before – not surprising to given the conditions under which it was conducted – but felt that it constituted a good faith effort to seek input, which he could forthrightly say had opened the process to seek input – probably true enough. While these sorts of exercises can serve valuable functions, they rarely produce new information that can provide actionable insight. Simply put, a coffee klatch in a high school gym is no substitute for actionable and methodical opinion research.
Compare that with a school district I worked for recently where voters had rejected previous multiple requests, which perplexed the superintendent. He hired my firm to conduct strategic focus group testing. Held at a facility with an observation suite (so the session could be viewed in anonymity by him and others), populated with incentivized voter-respondents who were blindly-recruited (no knowledge of the sponsor or subject matter), and it was facilitated by me (someone who did not reside in the district and was unknown to the voter-respondents, so I could ask incisive questions with the veneer of objectivity that would elicit candid responses). The session was fascinating for many reasons, including hearing and seeing the emotional trigger points around which a consensus could be built, rather than what had been previously touted. This allowed the public dialog about the concept to be repositioned to discuss what mattered most to the public – not just supportive, friendly parents – as decisions were being made. Interestingly, one finding was that the respondents were dubious of a prospective decrease in yearly taxes that would result from a longer collection period (“Voting for a bond issue will lower my taxes?!”). They could not comprehend it and they were flummoxed by the complex technical explanation for it. It was revelatory and, from that point forward, not touted because of the risk it posed to the credibility of the effort (simply put: it did not fit within the framework of beliefs).
At the end of the session, the superintendent commented to me that he only knew one of the voter-respondents, so most of them – and their views – were new to him, which was a form of validation for me about the rigorous techniques used. It served as an exemplary answer to the query, why use a professional opinion research firm for something that, on its face, appears to be simple enough to be performed by anyone. The district passed the measure with robust public support. For more information on focus testing, you can download this one page primer: https://paul.fallonresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Focus-Group-Testing-Explained-by-Fallon-Research.pdf

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