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How do you validate focus group findings? In any study, every time I do a new wave of focus groups I am checking on the previous ones to see if there are new issues coming up or whether the old ones still valid. Sometimes I do prevalence studies to check if we are barking up the wrong tree. For example, in the breastfeeding study, we did a big prevalence study of the issues that were coming out of the focus groups to make sure we weren’t going off on a tangent. So from the focus groups you find out x,y and z and then from the prevalence study, the quantitative study you can validate that 10% of the population agree that this is an issue. Now and again you have to go back to conventional epidemiology but I have never found focus groups to be wrong.

Are the findings relevant for long? Yes, they continue to be relevant, people are not going to change. I did focus groups 20 years ago and I still use the material in new interventions now. Occasionally you have to update them. For example, in cervical cancer screening the level of knowledge of the population who are risk of cervical cancer has changed, they are more aware of their bodies now and it’s not quite as mysterious as it was. But basically, it’s the same old things which make them stay away.

Do you share the findings? This is a difficult issue because there’s a lot of pressure from the funders to feed the results back to the target audience. If you find out something interesting, it’s very powerful and it’s difficult to contain. But premature disclosure is a killer. It’s a bit like home truths. If you are told too bluntly that you’re a scatterbrain, or something like that, you’ll just dig your heels in and say that’s not like me at all. So whether it’s the target audience or the professionals, it all has to be rather cloak and dagger.

What makes you so confident about your approach? The techniques I use have been used in industry for donkeys years. The field workers have been doing the same work in the international commercial sector for years and tell me that I am using the same methods. But the companies don’t publicise them because they’re so effective and they’re trade secrets. But we’ve stumbled on them now and have started using them. A lot of the people in the social marketing world came from commercial marketing in the first place. They used to work for tobacco companies and such.

Depending on the size of the project, I would probably do a prevalence study just for safety safe to check we haven’t gone completely off the boil and got the wrong set of people in. But intuitively now, I can read focus groups and say this sounds plausible to me and we’re talking about the right issues here. From time to time though, you need to do conventional epidemiology, just to make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree.

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