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Marketing Surveys vs. Focus Groups

March 3rd, 2010 by Bruce Wiseman

The Focus Group Fallacy

It is a magnificent spring morning. You ease your car into your parking space at the office, turn the key to off and step into the brisk morning sunshine. Walking across the parking lot, you wonder how it is that an evening’s rain can clean things so purely that it smells like the air just took a bath. As you bound through the front door of the office you see the receptionist just settling down to her desk, a cup of Starbucks finest occupies her immediate attention. “Good morning Melinda, how’s it going?”

”Fine, Mr. Crystal, just fine.”

But guess what, Melinda is not fine. She had a fight with her boyfriend last night, she is hung over, and she is not “fine.”

“Fine” is a social answer to the question. It is not an honest answer. It may well be that you really didn’t want an honest answer to that question and it’s not that Melinda “lied” in any harmful sense at all- more of a PR handling of the boss. But this little vignette illustrates one of the most critical aspects of effective market research–getting an honest answer to a question, a survey question.
Without really being aware of it, many people feel compelled to say that they “agree” with something whether they actually feel that way or not.

”Isn’t that a magnificent painting?” your friend remarks.

”Why yes it is” you say not wanting to be rude or hurt their feelings by replying that you really think it looks like it was drawn by a six year old on a Cap’n Crunch high.

But art is not my point here; effective market research that helps advertising or PR campaigns increase sales and income is the point. And to achieve that one must start with honest answers to survey questions.

By actual study, these are best achieved by one on one–individual–surveys, not in a group where people think that their answer is going to be heard and or perhaps considered by their peers. The phenomenon that we often refer to as “peer pressure”–really kind of a compulsion to be in agreement with others–does in fact exert itself in focus group situations and can easily distort the results of the research. Understandably, this can misdirect an advertising, marketing or public relations campaign resulting in red, not black ink , on the bottom line.

”That is how the industry operates,” some say, “everybody uses focus groups.”

Well, not everybody, and use them or not, the results from focus group research can be highly questionable at best. And I for one am not enthralled by the fact that such results can, and in some cases do, give the market research industry a bad name.

It has amazed me over the years that 80% to 90% of the advertising and marketing executives that I have spoken with “admit” to me, as if they were telling their wife they had been having an affair, that they have had bad or questionable results from focus group research. In discussing our services with agencies or directly with clients one of the first things that I say is “we do not use focus groups, we have found that results from them can be unreliable, we do personal one on one surveys” and I almost always get a sigh of relief. In several cases, ad executives have lowered their voices to whispers and said “I know, those things don’t work, I hate them.”

In a few cases my remarks have prompted ad men to launch into horror stories of campaigns gone awry because of misplaced reliance on focus groups. The simple truth is that one-on-one interviews of individuals will yield remarkably more accurate and usable information than a group of people sitting in a room with a “facilitator”.

Does mean that market research or public opinion research is worthless or, worse yet, damaging? Nothing could further from the truth–unless it is done incorrectly. Market research and surveys are a truly vital element to any campaign. Done correctly, the heavens part and sales and income soar. But the information that you get must be accurate and represent what the customer or potential customer actually thinks or would do regarding the product or service or issue. Why are focus groups less likely to get that result?

One reason is the point mentioned above, people tend to be less forthcoming when sitting in a room with a group of other people than if engaged in a personal one on one conversation by someone who is truly interested in their opinion. If all of the other ladies in a room say that they think that the new dish soap packaging is attractive then…. Well yes, I guess you could call it that. But put this woman in a grocery store with her shopping cart and the new product gets bypassed.

Why? Because she is influenced, regardless of how many times the group “facilitator” tells her not to be, by what others in the room say regarding the product or service being “researched.”

Added to this is the fact that she is being “paid” for her opinion. Almost all market research of this kind operates by compensating those being surveyed in some way. And regardless of the pleas for impartiality from the company the gift or money paid inclines some of the respondents to try to answer the questions “favorably”.

Some years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to an infomercial producer who (wisely) wanted to determine the attitudes, likes and dislikes of women regarding a cosmetic product for which she was being hired to produce an infomercial. The budget for the infomercial was to be in the $600,000 range and the producer thought it wise to see what women thought about this product before having her client cough up more than a half million dollars.

She wanted focus groups. I told her that we didn’t do them and why. But the producer was adamant. That, combined with my friend’s pleadings, led us to conduct some focus groups for this product.

I will not say that the information gained was worthless. It was not. But some ancillary results also showed us that some of the responses to the questions about the product were definitely affected by the lovely earrings these women received to participate in the focus group.

This does not mean that “majority opinion” is not important? To the contrary, it is critical. You need to know, very specifically what your public agrees on–what they consider valuable about what is being offered. But the way to obtain that information is to conduct one on one personal interviews and then tabulate the answers of each one into the overall results.

An example. The Senior Vice President of Marketing for the First National Bank of Des Moines (all resemblance to institutions living or dead is purely coincidental) wants to increase the bank’s deposit base among small to medium sized businesses and is considering an advertising campaign to this public.

You have this public contacted on the phone or at a business convention of some kind, they are asked qualifying questions to ensure that they are the right prospective public, and then asked questions such as:

”What is the most important factor in selecting a bank for your business?’

Sixty two percent (62%) say “a personal relationship with the branch manager.”

You now run a campaign on all of the media channels that reach this public with a headline that says at First National you can always have “a personal relationship with the branch manager” (assuming that you can deliver on that promise) –graphics to match.

You do not run “We are a relationship bank” or “at First National personal relationships are important to us” or anything else. You take exactly what your prospects say and give it back to them and then stand back and watch the business from this market segment grow. Why? Because you just personally asked them what the most important factor was in selecting a bank and they told you. Don’t change their words to something that you think they mean. They said what they said, use it, give it to them. This kind of accuracy rarely comes from a focus group.

Sometimes it is unbelievably simple. A small company that operated a chain of carpet cleaning franchises came to us several years ago to help increase the response to their direct marketing materials.

We surveyed the decision-makers for such services (mostly housewives) and found that overwhelmingly the main reason that professional carpet cleaning companies were used was to “remove spots.”

Not surprising in retrospect.

The company subsequently engaged in a major direct marketing campaign with a flyer that had a “spot” on it and said on the cover page that their service “removed spots.”

As the campaign rolled out, the company’s income increased steadily from $120,000 per month to $327,000 over a period of ten months.

This isn’t rocket science. Of course, you have to do your demographic research to identify your market, your public. And you need to know how to get through to people exactly what questions to ask and how to tabulate and analyze the results. But that done, get the straightforward information to your creative people without having someone superimpose id and egos all over the data, that’s is a sure-fire formula for wasted advertising dollars.

This kind of income generating research does not come from focus groups, it comes from looking into the minds of your public with personal, one on one surveys and with questions written and asked in a way that gets honest answers and reactions. Yes, it takes professional skill but, done correctly, can make the difference between a so-so campaign and one that can drive sales and income through the roof.

Which brings up another point, please don’t listen to all of this psychobabble that floats around the periphery of the market research community. Good market research is very straightforward. One of the major agencies in New York called us in to evaluate some research after a campaign had bombed.

This was research that had been done for a fortune 1000 financial services company. The research director was a psychologist who had “interpreted” the survey results and suggested a campaign in which the client was the father figure and their customers were to be viewed as children and….Yuck.

What staggered me was that senior management had bought into this stuff. Good research must come from the minds of the company’s customers or potential customers.

Whether for advertising, marketing or public relations campaigns, surveys can provide the magic key to the door of increased sales and income. But that key must be forged from by honest and straight forward responses from individuals in your public (and then tabulated), not by a group of people who have been paid to kick the concept around in a room and not what someone else “thinks” it should be.

To quote Al Ries and Jack Trout the authors of the ground-breaking book, Positioning the Battle for your Mind

”In determining the state of the prospect’s mind, it is important not to let corporate egos get in the way. You get the answers to (positioning questions) from the market-place, not from the marketing manager.”

Done in this way, you may well come to recognize market research as the foundation upon which consistently successful media campaigns are built.