Exasperation with focus groups, while not universal, is growing as companies look for better ways to get inside consumers’ heads, often assisted by new technology and the Internet.

Perhaps the most common complaint about focus groups is that consumers are not honest in front of other people. America Online Inc. in 2003 saw a disconnect between what men revealed in groups and the complaints about spam it received by e-mail. It turned out that men, in a room with strangers, were not keen to admit they didn’t have full command of their laptops. But in e-mails, they conceded that they were tortured by underperforming spam blockers.

Observing and interviewing men at their keyboards led to a revamp of the AOL blocker and an ad campaign publicizing the change. “There’s peer pressure in focus groups that gets in the way of finding the truth about real behavior and intentions,” says John B. Osborne, chief executive officer of BBDO, New York, AOL’s ad agency.

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