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.