A couple of hundred years ago when I was an editor at Worth, like many consumer magazines we conducted a fair number of focus groups. You didn’t have to sit behind the one-way mirror more than a few times before you realized their power–and their limitations. A group of potential readers is a great forum to get feedback about how you’ve done: “Here’s the cover of our October issue, how do you feel about it? Does it make you want to pick up the magazine and read it?” For a magazine editor, that’s priceless feedback.
However, the value of such groups falls off very quickly once you move from asking opinions about existing material–covers, headlines, pictures, articles–and into the hypothetical, where group members have to use their imaginations. Without something concrete to look at, people find it very hard to predict their feelings and behavior. For example, if you ask focus group members if they would read an article on tax planning, you’re likely to get a pretty low favorable response. But if you ask if they’d read an article about how to cut their taxes in half, legally, you’re likely to get virtually unanimous approval.
Asking people open-ended questions about what they want is even less helpful. Sure they can give you specifics about what they need–more tips on how to save for retirement, for instance–but when it comes to getting folks to tell you what products or services would fill those needs, forget about it. For one thing, people in a focus group haven’t spent much time thinking about the problem. What’s more, if these people were good at coming up with great ideas they’d be conducting focus groups, not participating in them.
Imagine a focus group conducted by the U.S. Postal Service 30 years ago: they’d probably have gotten requests to provide cheaper stamps, faster delivery, better customer service. But what do you think the odds would have been that even one person would have said: “You know, I’d like a device that sits on my desk, or better fits in my pocket, that lets me write letters or notes and then send them instantly to anyone, anywhere in the world!” Focus groups are for gauging reactions–and anyone who’s looking to them for creative thinking is doomed to disappointment.
It’s this kind of disappointment that I felt as I read the “Recommendations on Future Regulation of the Financial Planning Profession” which were submitted by the FPA Board of Directors to its members in June.
Written by an impressive Regulation Task Force comprising 14 planning luminaries, the “Recommendations” contain plenty of remarkably good thinking, both by the Task Force and by the FPA itself. Unfortunately, the one thing they forgot is any actual recommendations. Instead, after a powerful argument about why and how the FPA needs to get involved in planning regulation and a thorough analysis of its various options for doing so, the Task Force “recommends” that the Board: “1) encourage member feedback; and 2) assuming consensus on goals and objectives, to embark on a specific strategy and tactics for achieving its objectives.” In other words, the Task force “recommends” that “…through a combination of surveys and meetings with Chapter leadership Resource Council, chapter leaders, and various other leaders of the profession…” the FPA Board conduct some focus groups to tell them what to do.
The Task Force’s best work comes in the sections where it’s building a case for the FPA having a regulation strategy in the first place. Their compelling argument is essentially two-fold. First, with the SEC currently studying advisor regulation and an October 2004 report by the General Accounting Office which suggests reconsidering the financial regulatory structure, it’s pretty clear that we’re going to get some kind of reregulation that will affect financial planners, probably in a big way. “The Task Force believes that there is a steady and growing recognition by Washington policymakers and industry insiders that status quo regulation of the financial services industry simply no longer makes sense.” As the leading organization in the planning world, it seems the FPA should do what it can to see that the interests of financial planners, and more importantly the financial public whom they serve, are well served in any new regs.