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Is this the end of focus groups?

29th April 2009

Is this the end of focus groups?

Is this the end of focus groups?

I was talking yesterday with an account manager who during a discussion about market research said that social media metrics would never replace the value gained from facial expressions, body language and the tone of voice of people attending a live focus group.

I’ve planned a few focus group sessions in the past when I was part of the team that re-branded Frisp Crisps and I have to say I remember them as being interesting and generating some useful feedback, particularly that the crisps were considered as being quite ‘foody’ and filling, more than a snack. That fed into the decision that new ‘foody’ such as Buttered Jacket Potato & Mature Cheddar would fit with our customers’ perception of the crisp brand.

It was also useful to see them place packaging in order of perceived quality, heavy gauge paper type bags being clearly seen as a premium bag and the rather flimsy film packaging of own label brands being a value brand. This was all good stuff for the re-brand, and we felt some real insights into how people relate to products came out of those focus groups.

I can’t help thinking though that 80% of what came out of the focus groups was understanding we already had and that’s the crux for me really. We are taught that to understand we must ask questions which is all well and good but when we consider asking a question we’ve normally considered a number of potential answers and are looking for verification, it’s human nature to do so. Do some of the answers generated by focus group attendees therefore reflect what they think or what the brand manager thinks?

Like focus groups, social networks and communities enable us to observe and engage with our target audience. Some of the biggest brands in the world, Mattel being one, have embraced the principle idea that listening to what their target audience talk about (Manly themselves and their families) will deliver as yet undiscovered insights and prompt questions that the brand team have not yet thought of relating to their products and importantly about their target audiences lives. The community in question for Mattel is ‘The Playground’, a private community for the mothers of young children.

I’d argue that the anonymity of talking freely online empowers people to say what the truly think without the influence of our own ‘self awareness’, of wanting people to perceive us in the way we want to be perceived. This will reshape how we learn about our target audiences but will this replace traditional focus groups or market research? I think not.

Social media isn’t a new broom to make a clean sweep of traditional marketing metrics. It’s offers brand managers another dimension of metrics, that will keep our thinking honest and our minds focused on our audience.

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