Thursday, 19 March 2009

Is the Focus Group Dead, or Just Given Too Much Credence?

Comment on MediaPost.com re: article: Listen Up, Marketers: The Focus Group Is Dead

With regard to Focus Groups (FGs), 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 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 to their products, 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.

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