Are Focus Groups Obsolete?

Isn’t it time we just got over focus groups?


Nothing is certain but death and taxes… unless you’re launching an ad campaign or new product or candidate for Governor. Then you can certainly add truckloads of dollars for focus groups. They represent the conventional wisdom, a seemingly inevitable tactic. After all, if you can marry the market to the message, you’re in clover, right?

But wait — there’s less. What if we were to bypass conventional research, go straight to consumers, deliver a variety of messages (some aimed at the expected bullseye, some at creative alternatives) and in the process, tailor your message to maximize ROI, uncover hot-button messages, and maybe, using ecommerce, break even on cost.

Whoa. It’s possible if you consider creative (some would say radical) new ways to employ sponsored search.

You may already be using sponsored search (AKA pay-per-click AdWords, AdSense, or PPC) or be at least familiar with it. (If you aren’t, visit Pay-Per-Click 101. We call PPC the “microwave of advertising” because you can deliver highly refined messages directly to specific target audience segments, close sales sooner, and measure the entire process (response rates, time spent, pages visited, paths taken, exit points, purchase behavior) in real time. Those attributes, which make PPC a powerful sales medium, can also make it a precise research platform.

Okay. We hear traditional market researchers screaming. Focus group research is qualitative, and what we’re talking about sounds quantitative. In response, we say pay attention. Read on.

Think about it: say your brand has two strong differentiations, three potential audiences, and two possible positioning objectives. You may feel you have a product or service advantage, or maybe you’re the low-cost provider, or you believe (as, incidentally, do all your competitors) your customer service is superior. (Swell. And your mom loves you, too. But we digress.) Which attributes are credible? What appeals most to the potential customers in your crosshairs? Where’s the hot button that really lights them up?

You could, in theory, spend tens of thousands of dollars on focus groups to get an inkling of which messages elicit the most favorable responses and (one can hope) the most sales. Eventually. Down the road.

loudmouth bullyBut what if one loudmouth in each group becomes an opinion bully? Or the smartest woman in the group was too shy to speak up?

Yes, of course, a good seasoned moderator can minimize the negative impact, and she or he can draw out opinions from the reluctant — but we confess to a few decades of sitting behind the glass, and even with a good moderator, most groups contribute nothing actionable. It’s a committee, for Pete’s sake. Humanity’s blockbuster weapon to prevent action.

There is for example the unavoidable “polite bias” in focus groups: People can say all they want — opinions mean bupkes until wallets come out. There are whole ethnic groups (Mexican-Americans, for example, or many East Asian immigrants) who are culturally driven to search politely for “the right thing to say” — they’ll speak well of your new widget or service or candidate, even if they will never, ever buy it or try it or vote for her.

Many (and trust us, we’ve seen many) new product launches have shipwrecked because marketers banked on focus groups’ “acceptance” of a concept. Wishful thinking can be more powerful than gravity.

On the other hand, what might happen if you were to use pay-per-click as a research tool?

You could run controlled sponsored search (PPC) ads on a modest budget, pushing various benefits and differentiators to multiple audiences. You might run ads which lead to unique landing pages, each one illuminating a single differentiator, asking for the order. Mix them all up, run constants and variables, tweak individual words daily — play the mad scientist in your advertising laboratory until you have created the perfect way(s) to sell your brand.

It seems complicated (and it can be) but it boils down to this: Run ads until you find the one with the best ROI. That ad becomes your Control. Write more ads. If one beats the Control, it becomes the Control. Write more ads. Rinse and repeat.

Note that you’re no longer holding focus groups to assess strategies for communications that you later create. You’re testing messages directly. Polish until perfect.

How do you know it’s perfect? Rather than simply getting groupthink from ten tired sheep around a table, you’re proving efficiency and cost-effectiveness — “wallet-voting” with real dollars in a real market of real-world buyers.

The best part? You didn’t invest buckets of money fishing for ways to express ideas to move markets. Your research created real selling messages at reasonable costs — and if lucky, you might even break even! At that enlightened point, you can kick the proven message(s) into high gear, confident that you’re employing an optimal strategy. And you’ll do it sooner than is possible bouncing back and forth from focus group to drawing board.

It’s our radical new take on research: less bias, opinion, time and cost — more thorough, accurate and actionable results. The biggest hurdle for you is finding an innovative branding agency who knows how to do it right. May we recommend the disciplined creativity professionals at Killian Branding?

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