Stop! You’re both wrong.

Robert-mankoff-geez-you-re-the-worst-focus-group-i-ve-ever-seen-new-yorker-cartoonPR Week's June issue contains a fascinating 'Gloves Off' discussion about focus groups.

Robert Moran of Brunswick believes focus groups are still relevant and provide rich insights. BlissPR's Tim Ryan disagrees, suggesting instead that, with the advent of the blogosphere, a plethora of secondary research exists that provides all the research a PR guy could ever want.

Well, guess what? They're both wrong.

As a veteran of such integrated marketing agencies as J. Walter Thompson and the late, not-so-great Earle Palmer Brown, I've sat through countless focus groups. Every one suffered from what I'd call the realities of group dynamics. One, dominant personality ALWAYS spoke more loudly and more frequently than her peers. The others, not wanting to appear weak or uniformed, consciously or subconsciously followed the alpha member's lead. The end result always reflected that bias.

Relying solely on secondary research to drive a campaign, as Mr. Ryan suggests, strikes me as lazy, if not, dead wrong.

It's lazy because, while there is a motherlode of data in the blogosphere, none of it is an EXACT fit for your product, service or organization's PRECISE need. And, in a cluttered world, precision is absolutely critical. It's intrinsic to creating a breakthrough campaign. Also, as any experienced PR person knows, the best reporters dismiss secondary research for exactly that reason: it's secondary and is available to one and all. Reporters want fresh, primary findings.

That's why we bypass focus groups and almost never rely on secondary research. Instead, we've partnered with a former New York Times reporter, Emily Yellin, to create what we call Audience Experience. Emily's written THE seminal book on customer service, entitled: 'Your Call Is (not that) Important To Us' and she knows what works and why.

Audience Experience complements a client's existing primary research. After digesting it, we put ourselves in our client's audience's shoes and experience the brand from the outside in. So, we'll either BE the mother of two shopping for new pair of earrings or tag along on the journey of a college student majoring in economics and about to decide which of the Big Four he'd like to join. In every case, we continually ask the questions why and why not?

These are deep, qualitative discussions that, unlike focus groups, cannot possibly be influenced by a loud-mouthed, highly opinionated participant. And, lord knows, they're most definitely NOT re-packaged findings from some other company. A pox on secondary research!

The best ways to glean the critical nuggets of information that will inform a campaign come from pounding the pavement in the customer's shoes. Anything else is a couch potato version of research.

4 thoughts on “Stop! You’re both wrong.

  1. Great point, Emily. I completely forgot to mention that focus groups are, indeed, artificial in nature and enable the top down, inside out thinkers within the C-suite to continue applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

  2. Thanks Terry. But, focus groups are controlled, top down, inside out senior management exercises that have one goal: to tell senior management what they want to hear.

  3. You said it Steve. But I would make another point, or two, about the problem I see with focus groups in particular. They are always designed from the company’s point of view in a controlled environment. They are like zoos, compared to the open wilderness of the field work we do for our Audience Experience projects. Watching and listening and asking about how people interact with companies and their products and services in real time and in real places yields results and insights you cannot get from a focus group no matter how well you replicate the natural habitat.
    We don’t just become the audience, or walk in their shoes. We listen and watch and ask questions of real people interacting with the company, as they do it. We get at things that just asking questions from the company’s point of view can never get at. Because as I know as a reporter, people’s first answers usually are not the whole truth about how they feel or what happened. You have to spend more time and win trust before people tell you, or show you, what they really think and feel. So while focus groups have their place for some insight. They can give people in companies a false sense that they know all there is to know about what their key audiences want, need, think, feel and care about.

  4. Focus groups can be enormously productive with the right set-up and moderating. Use of periodic individual review/analysis forms means each respondent records his/her individual opinion then allows general discussion of a variety of viewpoints. “Dominant personalities” can and should be sidelined, while quieter types can be pulled into discussion.
    Pre-group in-category homework and frequent take home and/or diary in-home product use experiences allow researchers to expand on the learning.