Commentary

Listen Up, Marketers: The Focus Group Is Dead

I'll start this column with a few quotes:

 

"What we didn't get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn't something that came out in the research."-Neil Campbell, president, Tropicana, North America to The New York Times upon pulling its revamped packaging in February after consumer complaints.

 

"We have heard your concerns about the ad that was featured on our website. We are parents ourselves and we take feedback from moms very seriously."-Kathy Widmer, vice president of marketing, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, upon pulling a Motrin ad after mothers expressed outrage about it in November.

"Over the past couple of days, we received a lot of questions and comments about the changes and what they mean for people and their information. Based on this feedback, we have decided to return to our previous terms of use while we resolve the issues that people have raised."-Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook, responding to user outrage over changes made, without user input, to its terms of service in February.

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"The testing we've done has been incredibly positive." -David Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel to The New York Times on Monday about its proposed new name, Syfy. So far, a post on Sci Fi's own blog about the new name contains more than 900 mostly negative comments, and has more than 1500 Diggs.

 

I assume most Social Media Insider readers would agree with the statement that corporate America needs to do a little work on this listening thing. What I love about all of these examples is that, even if many of you have preached this gospel for some time, there's an increasing body of evidence to support why this is so important. This week's Syfy example (and yes, I did post about this over at the BNET Media blog to which I also contribute), marks at least the fourth time since November in which a major corporation has gotten itself in hot water through the act, or in-act, of not listening. If I were you, I'd clip and save those four quotes and trot them out to all of my clients.

But this column isn't just about not listening. It's about the fact that so often, if companies do, they commit a significant sin of omission, listening to customers who were either not invested in their brand very much or not invested in it at all. Worse, they do this listening in the contrived environment of the focus group. The president of Tropicana admitted that it didn't listen to its loyal customers, in his interview with the Times, for example.

Then there's the whole question of what compels a corporation to engage in big change initiatives in the first place. More often it's from within, rather than from without, where the consumers live. This quote from designer Peter Arnell, from the press conference about the new Tropicana packaging, particularly stands out: "There was a strong drive to bring a big messaging onto the carton where the biggest single billboarding was."On whose part? Why do I doubt it was the consumer's?

The people at Sci Fi, or SyFy, or whatever you care to call it, pounded their chests over the testing they did with consumers over the new name, but as Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer for TNS Cymfony, speculated yesterday, in all likelihood those focus groups were not the media property's core audience, but the people they were looking to attract. It's highly ironic that in the Times interview, Howe actually says that he wanted to avoid a "Tropicana debacle," only to immediately find himself in one. He thought he was listening, but was he listening to the right people? Doesn't look like it.

I'm certainly sympathetic to the challenge companies face in trying to expand beyond their core, but, courting new lovers at the expense of the old is a recipe for disaster, and it's only compounded when focus groups are held up as the last word in what consumers want. "You need a little safe, quiet laboratory to test these things in -- and focus groups are not it," Nail said to me yesterday. "Because there's always the dynamic that people are showing up for their $50 and M&Ms."

Exactly. While that's always been the case, as use of social media channels becomes more ubiquitous, the very idea that a focus group is valuable is ridiculous -- when compared with the real conversation taking place among the people who really care about your brand. The focus group is dead. But when will marketers notice?

35 comments about "Listen Up, Marketers: The Focus Group Is Dead".
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  1. Leonard Sipes from Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, March 18, 2009 at 2:04 p.m.

    Please see http://media.csosa.gov-blog for an article on the use of social marketing to convince 520 criminal offenders with warrants to surrender in Washington, D.C. It was successful because we based the campaign on focus groups.
    Best, Len Sipes.

  2. Max Kalehoff from MAK, March 18, 2009 at 2:04 p.m.

    Cathy,
    Agree, philosophically, that the value of focus groups is not the same. Moreover, it is important to listen to your most passionate stakeholders, those who express publicly online and elsewhere.

    But the real tough questions are:
    - Who are the right customers to listen to?
    - And what are they really saying?

    After segmenting customers and weighting their feedback (perhaps by authenticity, profitability, loyalty or potential for growth), it's incredibly difficult to interpret the real meaning or intent of customer expression. Customers may say one thing, but their pain or desire may have to do with something they can't even articulate. It's a cliche, Henry Ford's quote speaks well to the point: "If I had listened to my customers I would have made a faster horse."

  3. Cindy Alvarez, March 18, 2009 at 2:06 p.m.

    It's not just a question of listening, it's a question of listening at the right time, in the right context.

    The Facebook redesign may have looked fine as a static mockup, but Facebook isn't a brochure-ware site, it's data-driven. Without a unique user's data, it's just an empty shell.

    Facebook keeps trying to redesign that shell as though IT were the value that users keep returning for. It's not - users are returning for THEIR friends and photos and updates. You can't test-drive a data-driven site with fake data. It's a lot messier to put the real thing out there and let people play with it - but it's the only hope of getting truly representative feedback.

  4. Rick Lavoie from RUCKUS, March 18, 2009 at 2:09 p.m.

    Catharine,
    You're absolutely right. The focus group is dead except its buried in the back yard at the party and nobody has noticed yet...or they don't want to notice. Although it isn't big business, focus groups are all part of 20th century mentality like traditional media. Many marketers are working hard not to notice because too much money and livelihoods are at stake. Clients and consumers continue to suffer, but not for long. Agency partners need to do our best in supporting our clients and proposing new methods. As you said, the conversation is underway at a new party. We just need to make the introduction.

  5. Jim Lefevere from Independent, March 18, 2009 at 2:16 p.m.

    Couldn't agree more. In fact I think the old model of recruitment and focus group testing will be dead if not nearly dead in a few years. The conversation is and will continue to move and companies of all kinds will struggle to keep up. The paradigm has shifted.

    www.theinteractivemarketer.com

  6. Jacqueline Amyot from Goodmind, March 18, 2009 at 2:18 p.m.

    Catharine -- we literally JUST wrote a whitepaper on this subject; not just about listening, but listening to the RIGHT people, in the right context. You probably saw this, but a recent survey by the CMO Council found that only 16% of respondents (marketing executives) reported that their companies have any routine system in place for monitoring what people are saying about their brands online. 16 percent. This is unbelievable to me. The conversations are going on right now all around us. Why aren't companies listening?
    And you're right; traditional methodologies like focus groups, won't work for trying to listen to and understand the conversations happening online.
    Social media is just sitting there, asking to be tapped into for customer insights. Companies could be starting conversations of their own before things like Motrin Moms happens.
    http://www.goodmind.net/downloads/CustomerListeningv1.0.1.pdf

  7. Artie Scheff from ReelzChannel, March 18, 2009 at 2:20 p.m.

    The name change for SciFi, I know was a difficult decision for them and a long time coming. As someone who used to run a marketing department at a cable network, I know that they tested the name change to the full extent. A normal practice is certainly to have several focus groups of "fans" that would show if and how much the change would hurt. However, in an effort to get a more diverse group into the fold, they had even more groups of "low hanging fruit" - those ready for a more varried experience from the SciFi brand. These people, most likely, saw that the change in name would show new and different programs that would attract them. Remember, big fans hate change but eventually accept it if they like the brand. This name change may attract more, new fans and that is the reason they are doing it.

  8. Martin Edic from WTSsocial, March 18, 2009 at 2:21 p.m.

    Funny I just blogged on why companies stopped talking to their customers. And my next piece was going to be on how focus groups are looking more and more a thing of the past. It is observational vs. directed market research. Directed research is inevitably influenced by those creating and doing the research. Observational research in social media is like mystery shopping- what you see is what's really happening not what you hope is happening.

  9. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., March 18, 2009 at 2:23 p.m.

    Bravo Cathy! Another case of calling out the old guard and questioning obsolete thinking still alive and well at many big agencies. Why still use focus groups? Because after countless days behind two way glass eating M&M's, it's clear to me an industrial complex has been built around the mutual admiration of this awkward tactic. In other words, agencies and research companies know how to make money doing focus groups. Even the most progressive agencies are just starting to understand the business model of cultivating small (or large) groups of brand "Fans" for the explicit purpose of making more consumer focused decisions. And then someone went and moved the cheese! The game has progressed beyond walled garden listening posts, and evolved to pro-actively recruiting, engaging and rewarding brand fans to not only share feedback but to get out there and create positive Social Media on the brand's behalf. Link this "private" community dynamic to public social networking sites through tools like Facebook Connect and you've got social media gold. OK that last part is a pitch as it describes our Brand Nets platform, but transparency is critical for WOM credibility ;-)

  10. Martin Edic from WTSsocial, March 18, 2009 at 2:27 p.m.

    Max, try SM2 the social media monitoring tool- I used to work for them and it offers the ability to drill down into all the characteristics you mention. These tools are the deathnell for traditional panel type research. The research companies that understand this are going to thrive while those who don't are on their way out. There's a lot of resistance because they must adapt their mindset to a new model- just like the ad agencies who are being dragged kicking and screaming from their lofty perches! Social media is, for better or worse, the great equalizer.

  11. Linda Lopez from Independent, March 18, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

    The focus group is not dead (or shouldn't be); you just need the right people in it. But you're spot on about the listening. Great observations -- love the reader comments, too!

  12. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 18, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

    It's easy for 900 or 9000 or 90000 bloggers to take potshots at something, because their anonymity brings out inappropriate comments. You get a bunch of faceless jabs from the trolls who surf the blogs, when you do away with face-to-face measurement.

    But in a focus group, where social norms are more polite because people's faces are seen, you get fewer insane objections. Maybe you get a little less honesty, but you don't get the rude people who are not representative of the public.

    I seem to recall a similar hue and cry over the name Spike! for another cable channel, with many criticizing the folly of such a choice. But that died down and no one talks about it anymore. I predict the same for SyFy. A tempest in a teapot, and, no, no one is going to think it's the Syphilis Channel, which is one of the more ridiculous complaints from the vaunted 900.

  13. Sanjay Dholakia from Crowd Factory, Inc., March 18, 2009 at 3:36 p.m.

    Catherine, great article on an increasingly important topic for marketers. While making the change to focus on listening and engaging may sound daunting to many, the fact is that there are so many new ways that companies can tap into concerns and ideas of their most important customers. I am the CMO at Lithium Technologies, which powers the largest and most visible online customer communities for brands, and have been blown away by the success that companies like Best Buy, Sony and Verizon have had by simply providing a place for customers to interact with the company and with each other. One company noticed a conversation that custoemrs were having about how they were "customizing" their product and then turned it into a whole new product and revenue stream. Another used the community to help them prioritize which products they should build next -- and sales went up. Yet another has used the community to discuss how people were using their products -- and increased ecommerce conversions dramatically. Smart marketers are already taking notice and I have faith that eventually the rest of the community will as well.

    Sanjay Dholakia
    CMO, Lithium Technologies, Inc.
    www.lithium.com
    @sdholakia

  14. Kern Lewis from GrowthFocus, Inc., March 18, 2009 at 5:08 p.m.

    We should also remember that digital feedback, just like focus groups, can be unrepresentative. The Drive to Kill the Motrin Campaign may or may not have reflected the view of the majority. It was a well-connected online minority that won the day. The squeaky wheel, if you will, and we all know and resent the attention those types get!
    The point is, all responses have to be weighed and filtered. I agree with the idea that Tropicana was guilty of talking to themselves (most consumers are not worried about whether their favorite products 'refresh their looks' regularly), once they made the move they should have tried to measure the true depth of the dissatisfaction before backtracking. I suspect they would have found more indifference than overall dissatisfaction as they dug deeper.

  15. Patrick Boegel from Media Logic, March 18, 2009 at 5:09 p.m.

    Great article Catherine!

    Douglas for College of Charleston: Social norms? Since when is it the social norm for you to pay someone $50, $75 or $100 give them a sandwich a coke and some cheese doodles to say nice things about you? A little less honesty?

    You should take stock in the lack of anonymity that facebook, twitter and many many unmasked bloggers are quite comfortable with. The days of irrelevant childish cryptic chat forum handles are waning. The SyFy switch was silly and poorly thought out, regardless of the quality of the posters on chat forums, reading Twitter posts off Twitter Search right now, everyone is identifiable in their profile page, the sentiments there are the same.

  16. Patrick Boegel from Media Logic, March 18, 2009 at 5:10 p.m.

    Leonard that url does not work.

  17. Leo Exter from Trimedia Belgium, March 18, 2009 at 5:14 p.m.

    An interesting article, but it disregards three crucial points.

    First of all, any research can be easily manipulated. If a researcher (or researcher's internal client) has an agenda (changing the brand's logo, for example) it's very easy to make sure research proves the point it is supposed to prove.

    Second, even if research is done correctly (good sample, good moderator, good discussion guide), interpreting the results is the researcher's job, and it's not an easy one. If the interpretation is wrong, the tool isn't to blame for it.

    Third, research (if done properly) offers objectivity which several die-hard fans do not possess - exactly because they are die-hard fans. As a very astute person told me once about die-hard fans of his software about the new releases: they are the ones who complain the loudest about the changes, and they are also the first ones to buy the new version...

  18. Kent Stones from Callahan Creek, March 18, 2009 at 5:32 p.m.

    What this article highlights for me is that there is no one method of interacting with consumers that works for every situation. Clearly, focus groups have been poorly applied in many situations when other methods would have provided better understanding or insight. I find, however, there are still times when I find focus groups quite useful - but one must be exceptionally careful of who participates, equally careful of how the discussion is managed and thoughtful about the meaning behind the discussion.

    Listening to customers or conversations, like social media, is actually nothing new. It's all in how you listen and most importantly how capable one is of removing bias and judgement from your analysis. The tools and medium may change, but at the end of the day it's all about the ability to find meaning behind what you hear.

  19. Emma Bolser from ikon communications, March 18, 2009 at 5:48 p.m.

    I agree that big corporates need to listen to their consumers and that social media providea an excellent medium... but the problem facing advertisers is that brand love, shown so strenuosly in rants regarding packaging and name changes for example, doesn't always equate to sales which is what we all need to be engaged with.

  20. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, March 18, 2009 at 5:49 p.m.

    Hi
    Nothing has really changed has it.
    It will always be about:
    1. Your list (or customers/clients - potential or those already buying from you);
    2. The relationship you have with your list; and
    3. The offer you have for them.
    Get these things right and the sales come.
    Whether you need focus, groups, plain ol' conversation with them - it doesn't matter.
    What does matter is to remember "People Buy From Friends".
    Cheers
    Kurt
    http://www.kurtjohansen.com
    Australia's Email Marketing Guru

  21. Leo Exter from Trimedia Belgium, March 18, 2009 at 7:03 p.m.

    Patrick: The link to Leonard's post is http://media.csosa.gov/blog/ - and it's a great read!

    Angelica: agree, and very much so!

  22. Donna DeClemente from DDC Marketing Group, March 18, 2009 at 10:11 p.m.

    Thanks Catharine for including all these quotes in one place. I've bookmarked them and will use these in the future as you suggested. It's pretty impressive when you see together the different mistakes that marketers have made, and all pretty recently.

  23. Jesse Dienstag from Leo Burnett, March 19, 2009 at 1:02 a.m.

    I think some of you are drinking your own Kool-Aid. I can't wait until "social media" agencies have to rename themselves when social media "dies." C'mon, why would anyone say any form of listening is dead? That's just ridiculous. Wasn't anyone listening to Obama? Enough with the grandiose statements and generalizations. Enough with this black and white approach. There are no easy answers to complex problems.

    Yes, there are huge shifts going on, which are amazing. There are new and better ways to "interact" and "listen" to people. It's truly awesome. Every brand, if possible, needs to embrace social media. But to simply kill off the focus group is foolish. Killing off quantitative research would be foolish too. They both need to be evolving. Not to be crude, but is social media the best/only way to help the makers of Depends listen to their loyal, or potential customers?

    8 tracks died because the next generation of technology made them completely irrelevant. Are you telling me that there will never be an instance where focus groups can be useful?

    Hey, who stole my soap box?

  24. Maryanne Conlin from RedRopes Digital/4GreenPs, March 19, 2009 at 8:49 a.m.

    Ummm..let's try and remember for what we USE focus groups. Focus groups are "directional". That is, they should be used in the early stages of a project to get input from real life consumers. They are not intended to be the "be all and end all" of market research.

    A little basic marketing 101- Focus groups are qualitative research. You use them to try out ideas and collect new ones. They should be followed by quantitative research that validates some of these ideas.

    I would never say the focus group is dead. I would say that social media gives us some new tools to use to test ideas.

    Nice attention grabbing headline and great quotes...but let's get serious!

    BTW- The whole Tropicana thing was ridiculous- I've been involved in several massive repackaging projects- incremental change is the only way to go when you have an established brand image - why in the world wasn't this design change done incrementally - leaving the big orange in place and slowly adding more contemporary design over time?

  25. Kevin Lenard from Business Development Specialist, March 19, 2009 at 8:52 a.m.

    I think debating "dead" vs. "valuable tool" misses the subtlety of the issue. It's all about using the "human nature filter" to gauge what tool to use and how much decision-making weight to ascribe to the results. After 20 years of contracting observing and even moderating FGs from the Strat-Planning perspective it became clear that you only get a specific type of person who will agree to show up for them. Yes, the "$50 & M&Ms" crowd, at about 90%, and within that group what I'd call the "FG Professional", people with a lot of time on their hands and the desire to lord it over a group with forceful opinions about whatever the subject of the day is. I've seen FGs work well with largely untapped demographics, like 50+ male beer drinkers who've never been approached to sit in on a FG before. On the other hand, I've seen the same "typical housewives" show up for at least 4 vastly different categories of product clearly having lied about their past attendance in order to expound (and collect $50) at as many as possible. If you go into the FG knowing that this is the reality and figure out how to get past it can mean getting reasonably reliable filtered, 'directional only' results. WIth regard to the knee-jerk reaction of many firms to the instantaneous and visceral reaction of the blogosphere to any change being made, this same "human nature filter" really needs to be applied. Anonymous or not, the mere opportunity to have a chance to have one's opinion read is simply too ego-satisfying for most to resist (look at all of us posting our comments here!). It's the old adage of only being empowered to say no. The best advice would be to NOT change your marketing plans to satisfy the modern day equivalent of the "little old lady from Pasadena" (who was the only one with the time and determination to make the effort to track down the appropriate number to call and place it), but rather to have "online operators standing by" to engage the bloggers and get to the roots of the issue -- many of them only want to be validated and will move on to the next flaming rant about something else tomorrow. Just a thought from a Biz Dev specialist.

  26. Rick Lavoie from RUCKUS, March 19, 2009 at 9:10 a.m.

    Catherine,

    There's an interesting and hearty diversity of opinions that have evolved over the last 18 hours since I last posted. Let me add another entity within marketing that isn't dead yet but the nurse is coming in with the morphine - Marketing Research and Analytics. Ultimately, Marketing Research is the study of people and their behaviors which is good and I support and applaud it but when the sought after results turn into numbers and spreadsheets, it becomes cold very quickly and you loose all sense of humanity. Not to mention the time and energy it takes to track and evaluate this research is staggering and the researchers often loose the capacity to identify the nuggets in the sea of data. The biggest challenge I have is that it is evaluating the past, sometimes the distant past. The 21st century marketing will be driven by the human factors and needs of the present and future which is something that doesn’t come across in spreadsheets. That’s why social has taken off as it has. It provides control, connection and a new means to communicate. My recommendation is to eliminate focus groups, minimize your agency’s research department and build a sociological and physiological department...immediately.

  27. Julie Schlack from Communispace Corporation, March 19, 2009 at 9:39 a.m.

    I welcome and heartily agree with your emphasis on the need for companies to listen to their customers -- and not just episodically, through venues like focus groups, but in a longterm and ongoing way. And needless to say, as an SVP at Communispace Corporation, it's my experience and belief that recruited, actively facilitated private online communities are an invaluable way to do it. But I'd urge your readers to employ the full range of listening tools available. Focus groups still have merit -- especially when you're testing products with a strong sensory component. Twitter and social media monitoring tools can also tell you a lot in an unprompted way about the sentiments of a highly vocal group of people who may be representative of some portion of your customer base, but with an emphasis on "some." Private communities of the sort that we conduct are more effective in ensuring that a *diversity* of voices can be heard, and because they're longitudinal and personal, we know much more about the individuals who are sharing their views and lives and thus are better positioned to interpret what we're hearing. And of course, quantitative research still has its place when you're at the point of trying to size a market or make a major go/no go decision.

    Ultimately, companies need to hardwire the voice of their customers into their daily operations. They need to know who they're listening to, and to more fully understand the "why's" behind those expressions of sentiment far better than 140 characters allows. So by all means, observe the trends in tweets, but don't mistake that for the kind of holistic consumer understanding and relationship that companies ultimately need.

    Incidentally, we asked members of one of our proprietary women's communities what they thought of the whole Twitter/Motrin saga (since they didn't bring it up themselves -- notworthy in its own right). While most were underwhelmed by the ad’s content and creative, they were very polarized on the question of whether it was offensive to women. Among those who were not offended by the ad (the majority opinion), there was a pervasive view that the Twitter moms were overly sensitive and atypical. And regardless of their response to the ad, the overwhelming number of respondents was neither aware of nor used Twitter. So does this mean that J&J should not have withdrawn the ad? No -- it's never a good idea to offend any portion of your customer base. But ultimately, the question of how Motrin reacted is less relevant than the question of how they might have averted this problem in the first place. On this issue our community members displayed remarkable consensus that Motrin should have proactively gotten more input from moms both before the ad was released and after. And that is perhaps the biggest moral of this short but feverish story: to develop products and messaging that resonate with customers, brands must hardwire their voices into every facet of their business on an *ongoing* basis.

  28. Tom O'brien from MotiveQuest LLC, March 19, 2009 at 1:09 p.m.

    Catherine:

    Wow, you hit on a tender subject here. Apparently Focus Grouping is a pretty big industry.

    We listen in to the world's largest unstructured, organic focus group. It's called the internet!

    This technique of online anthropology works really well for understanding why people do what they do (motivations, drivers, issues, etc.) but is really bad for asking specific questions.

    Focus groups are still useful for getting feedback on specific ideas you have - but you might want to listen to consumers in the wild first!

    TO'B

  29. Steve Howe from Passenger, March 19, 2009 at 2:18 p.m.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Focus group attendees are not necessarily participating with the brands’ best interests in mind, and the fact that many focus group participants are more motivated by compensation than by brand or product interest increases the risk of getting useless (and sometimes dangerous) feedback. Marketing execs are evolving away from the “top down” or “one way” mentality of talking to - not with - their customers. (e.g., marketers create their messages, test them with some people in their deemed “appropriate” demographic - often colleagues, other marketers and analysts, not customers - and then push the message out to the masses). Perpetual web access enables us to speak with and hear directly from consumers, and companies should embrace this way of communicating. Whether we like it or not, social media and technology in general are changing the way that marketing and advertising execs approach their customers, and if they don’t evolve their approach to integrate customer voice, they should be prepared to run the risk of the public flogging that you mentioned in your piece!

    Steve Howe, President/COO, Passenger http://www.thinkpassenger.com


  30. Marc Doshay from BrandMarc Consulting, March 19, 2009 at 7:56 p.m.

    Research is imperfect by nature. Each methodology has inherent biases and relative advantages. If well recruited, properly designed and executed by a skilled moderator, both groups and one-on-ones can yield deep, directional insights and pivotal feedback. Of course, social media, ethnographic approaches and quant opinion methods should be in the complementary mix. But tossing properly applied focus groups aside is tantamount to disbelieving in the fundamentals of psychotherapy and counseling. The biggest challenge in all these forms is getting at the subconscious mind. The giant leaps are made through what isn't readily said and what might and could be, vs. what already has been.

  31. Tilly Pick from Development Practice 360, LLC., March 20, 2009 at 10:42 a.m.

    We've all known that listening to customers is important. It came right after we learned our ABCs. But there are different tools and methodologies for listening, and their applicability varies by situation.

    The thing that's perhaps most important is that when you listen and understand what is being said, you still have to decide what to do about it. That requires judgment and a lot more, and it's where the rubber meets the road. Because if you listen to everyone out there, you won't get anything done and won't do anyone any favors.

    I, for one, think that it has become very difficult to effectively listen while concurrently having a sense of focus and purpose. And it has probably given many CMOs gray hair.

  32. Ira Kalb from Kalb & Associates, March 20, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.

    Saying that any form of communication with the marketplace is dead is quite amusing. Focus groups have provided, and continue to provide, very valuable information to marketers.

    As was said in some earlier replies, the content of the questions and the techniques used to probe for the answers can make or break the success of focus groups. Any measuring techniques suffer from what scientists call the observer effect (changes that the act of observing will make on the phenomenon being observed). With focus groups, as with other techniques, skillful marketers can obtain good answers on which to base their decisions.

    As with all marketing, the medium you use to obtain information from the target audience has to be based on what will reach a representative sample of that audience as well as what will get respondents to provide accurate answers.

    Focus groups in the hands of skilled marketers can be a very effective channel for obtaining good information. Exceptions don't make the rule. Henry Ford would have probably made a faster horse, if he knew how to make one.

  33. Walt Guarino from Insight/SGW, March 26, 2009 at 12:48 p.m.

    As both a practitioner and a research professor, I think focus groups can be good or bad, mainly as a result of not only asking the right questions, but also having a good moderator. As for the incentive bias, practically all the research we do nowadays is incentivized. Many of the kinds of people we need to reach are higher level business people who don't respond unless we offer them $150 or more. I also have been convincing more and more client to do online bulletin board focus groups which I find provide more and richer data than traditional groups. This is particularly the case when the questions are asked over a couple of days and in an undisclosed sequential manner to remove bias. They may eventually displace focus groups as we know them.

  34. Trae Clevenger from Targetbase, March 27, 2009 at 1:06 a.m.

    "...see kids, this is what happens when PR, Marketing and the Borg get drunk and make babies."

    more here: http://bit.ly/Syfy

    byweimeanyou.com

  35. Jay Roth from J. L. Roth & Associates, Inc., April 15, 2009 at 6:27 p.m.

    You've correctly identified the need for companies of all sizes to better listen to their customers and their potential customers. Improved listening will help us all.
    However, you've missed the boat by categorically attacking the important and effective research tool, focus groups.

    There are two things you need to question before calling for the death of focus groups: 1.Whether recipients of key learning gained from focus groups or for that matter from any research are prepared to listen to what customers are saying, especially when it contradicts their personal points of view. 2. Whether the maketers allowed there research consultant to recommend the appropriate research tool for the business issue being addressed.

    First let me share the "off the record" news that focus groups conducted with loyal Tropicana OJ users clearly indicated problems existed, if the company adopted the new packaging. Either the team working on the redesign chose not to share this information with senior management or they incorrectly believed the customers could be persuaded with enough advertsing and time. (the grapevine says they felt they could change customers minds despite the research learning) The issue wasn't the focus group tool or which customers provided the feedback, but the willingness to of the marketers to listen and learn what customers were saying.

    Focus groups are a highly valuable tool, when they are the right tool for the task at hand -- exploring needs, thoughts, feelings, purchase decisions, perceptions of brands, customer experiences and some communications issues. They are also useful for clarifying results from quantitative research, that is, diagnosing what is meant by certain types of results.

    However, focus groups should be one of a set of research tools (research methods) considered based on a clear definition of the business issue being addressed. Other qualitative and quantitative research approaches should be considered (one on one depth interviews, bulletin boards, online or telephone or even mail surveys, and monitoring social media) depending on the issues being addressed and the audiences from which feedback is sought.

    So how about rethinking your column and helping set the record straight on focus groups. They are unquestionably useful, when they are appropriately used and they are conducted by qualified, skilled moderators/qualitative research consultants.

    During the past 25 years, I have observed and conducted focus groups and used other appropriate research tools to keep companies from making major mistakes regarding packaging, advertising, business policy decisions, brand positionings, product features for high tech products, and customer experience management. I have also helped companies, across almost every business sector successfully introduce major brands, products and services. I have helped companies change their processes to better meet customer needs frequently boosting employee satisfaction in the process. We have done this by honing in on the primary benefits desired and needing to be communicated, optimizing product offerings, refining customer experiences, identifying questions that needed to be asked in quantitative research and making sure the questions asked were asked in language understood by the people being surveyed.
    Unfortunately, I have also seen intelligent, experienced business professionals from all disciplines dismiss the learning gained from focus groups, IDIs, observational research and surveys, because it challenged their conventional wisdom or rocked the boat of a marketing plan and deadlines.

    As intelligent marketers, responsible journalists and bloggers, we need to stop saying focus groups are dead. Rather, we need to focus on making sure the focus groups and all research is conducted by experts who know how to assure to research is conducted effectively and the learning is clearly communicated.

    If this is done, the only ones left to blame will be those failing to listen to their customers/prospective customers.

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