Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Surprisingly Resilient Focus Group

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
--Mark Twain, 1897

Every couple months I see another article or post on the death of the focus group, (e.g. here) listing the FG’s well-known limitations (small sample, unnatural environment, false positives, dark rooms, too many m&m’s etc., etc.) usually as a preface promoting some alternative that claims to solve these problems (in-homes, out-of-homes, hypnotizing respondents, online research, online panels, behavioral data etc., etc.).

And I agree with both points. Focus groups are limited in all the ways suggested by these critiques. And other research methods are often superior ways of gathering useful information, depending of course on the question you are trying to answer. As many others have noted, all research methods have pros and cons and you need to match the right method to the project. But that’s obvious or should be.

Less obvious, I think, is the surprising vitality of focus groups despite the ongoing storm of critique and the expansion of available techniques, usually online, of collecting data and consumer feedback.

Brit Browning, one of my former planning staffers at Mullen and now at hotshop 180 in LA, mentioned the other day that he keeps seeing articles about how focus groups continue to have an instrumental role in helping shape some great campaigns. Here is Jeff Goodby on the famous "Got Milk" campaign. And here is Gareth on TIAA-CREF the other week.

Part of the problem seems to be that some creatives and most clients think we, as planners, use focus groups to "test" creative, that we somehow let the notorious 8 people in New Jersey pick an ad. Alex Bogusky (pulled from an interview here) on the subject is balanced but representative:

"Focus groups do to creative ideas what the wind tunnel did to the car - they take all the edges off and you're left with a bunch of cars that look like eggs. The Pontiac Aztek is a great example of a focus group car. "

The main goal of creative development focus group should not be to pick an ad, but rather, as the name suggests, to aid in creative development, by inspiring new ideas and gathering intuitive consumer feedback on creative elements. In fact, I'd rather not expose complete ads at all (even in story-board form), so much as a bunch of creative elements. By exposing a wide range of bits--words, images, stories, phrases--you can help identify what these elements telegraphically communicate in a both a literal and evocative way.

Whenever I come out a creative development focus group, I want to be able to tell creatives that I've identified 5 elements that will probably help, and 5 elements that seem to be more trouble than they are worth because they probably don't communicate what the creatives hoped they would. The creatives still make and choose the ads. The consumer feedback only helps creatives make executional choices and hopefully also gives them another set of ideas.

It’s not that I’m a huge fan to begin with. I often find groups pretty tedious and exhausting. I don’t particularly love flying to far-away cities only to spend the whole time in windowless rooms. And you do often have to slog through a lot of boring conversation and “projection techniques” to get something good and useful. (Doesn't that image just fill you with despair)

On the other hand, they usually end up being productive in a very basic sense. I can’t think of single day of focus groups when I didn’t emerge, blinking and sugar-highed, knowing three things about a consumer or a brand or a business that I didn’t know before. 3 new facts or ideas or insights. At least 3.

And I can think of many many days I’ve spent in the office or at client meetings when I headed out the door without anything but a headache.

The other major advantage of focus groups of course is that they are an established practice and so relatively convenient and stable, at least in major markets. You can set them up pretty fast and be relatively confident you’ll get some of the right people in the room. Of course it's great to have conversations in other interesting and relevant sites like restaurants and airports and subway stations, but we all know how logistically challenging these projects get.

In some ways, I kind of think of them like fire hydrants. There are undoubtedly better and more effective ways of putting out fires than water, but there is a pretty effective infrastructure in place, with fire depts in every residential area and hydrants on every corner. When you have a fire, it's sometimes best to closest best available option.

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