Thursday, April 9, 2009

The focus group: dying a slow death?

How much useful information can you get from a room full of twelve people being paid $75 to eat cookies and talk about a product, place or campaign?

According to a recent Catharine Taylor column in Social Media Insider, the focus group is dead. Taylor points out that focus group testing failed to predict customer outrage over Tropicana’s packaging change, the complaints of baby wearing moms about a Motrin advertisement, or the howls of protest over the Sci Fi channel’s name change and Facebook’s new terms of service. According to Taylor, focus groups are “contrived” and encourage companies to listen to “customers who were either not invested in their brand very much or not invested in it at all.” Taylor comments that “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.” Is Taylor right? Can the focus group, often as stale as the potato chips served to participants, really be replaced by following the conversations of brand loyalists on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook?

Focus groups can indeed be a problematic way to get information. Participants are often distinguished more by their desire for a cash stipend than by their insights. Some people habitually lie about their background and past participation in focus groups in order to gain access. There is little that is natural or realistic about a forced discussion conducted in a bland office room. Often the companies conducting focus groups have a desired result, and interpret the data selectively to support their preferred outcome. However, as participants in the lively comments following Taylor’s post point out, the marketers can’t only listen to the opinions of the most intense fans garnered via social media channels, because they could be overly intense and atypical. In addition to paying attention to loyal customers via social media, marketers should be devising ways to make focus groups more relevant, realistic, and reasonable.

Our argument is that focus groups can play a role in information gathering, but are too far removed from reality, and that being
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