Hard Truths About Focus Groups

In an interesting article titled “Hard Truths about Making Great Advertising” about a brilliant commercial (Apple’s “1984,”) Steven Stark takes aim at my beloved focus groups. The premise of the article is that “…truly great ideas are hard to recognize, hard to sell, and hard to keep alive.”

And focus groups are excoriated for being great idea killers.

It makes me angry to read things like this:

10. Focus Groups Won’t Get It

When the idea was tested in focus groups it was rated as one of the least effective commercials the firm had ever tested.

Focus groups measure the familiarity of an idea, not the size of it. Try your best to avoid them.

  1. The Focus Results Will Predict Nothing

On a 43 point scale predicting how effective the commercial was at persuading people to buy it, the commercial scored a 5.

People are looking for guarantees. There are no guarantees. Spend your time and money on the spot, not on testing.

First of all, it seems the writer is confusing focus groups with quantitative ad testing. Even back in 1984, I don’t know of anyone who’d do a focus group (which is a qualitative research methodology) with a 43 point scale, or who’d have a database of “commercial effectiveness” ratings with which to compare. So hey, let’s be a little more truthful and accurate about what you’re damning, please.

Second, it’s absurd to damn a tool when it’s how you use the tool that counts. “Focus groups” don’t kill a spot. It’s the people who misuse the learning, or who conduct focus groups when that methodology won’t yield useful learning, or who talk to the wrong people, or ask the wrong things, who are the problem.

I wasn’t working on the Apple account in 1983, so I have no knowledge of what actually went on. Had I been, I might have strongly recommended that the team not spend money doing research on the commercial idea. Or I might have suggested that it could be worth spending a bit of money just to learn, prior to production, what the spot was conveying, so that in production we could make sure it was doing what we wanted it to, since we were about spend millions of dollars producing and running it, not to mention casting several hundred skinheads as extras – interesting shoot day that must have been!

I work with the smartest, best people in the business. My clients certainly know how to utilize focus group research. And they get how to utilize the findings.

Granted, it can be excruciating as a person who developed an ad to listen to people get it wrong, not understand, not like it and then go on to re-write it for you. As a professional, though, you know they’re not your boss. And you also know that you can’t be with them when they see an ad to explain it. What they stupidly interpret is the reality. So your job is to listen with an open mind, not defensively. There may be a truth in there. Or an idea.

And part of my job, and all those who listen to people in focus groups, is to stop any yahoo who concludes “The focus groups didn’t like this ad, so we won’t proceed with it.”

It’s all about the why and the how. Why did people respond as they did? What was it about the structure of the ad, or the language, or the visuals used, or the music or the way it was drawn, that led to this response? And if you’re not interrogating “why” and “how” and working with what comes from that, don’t do focus groups.

In fact, consider getting out of marketing and advertising. It’s not the field for you.

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