“We give them $50.00 and a ham sandwich, and that makes them qualified to advise a brand on its marketing?” That’s how a former colleague of mine once challenged focus groups. I always loved the sentiment; half agreeing that there was something absurd about the practice.
Yes we all want to get closer to our customers, know what they’re thinking, and unearth the insight that might make us, as marketers, more responsive to their needs and wishes.
But with all the alternatives available to us today, the question becomes even more relevant. Are focus groups necessary at all?
Think about it. A bunch of folks from a marketing firm and its client fly to some distant city (usually Cincinnati or Minneapolis), drive to an innocuous suburban park and hunker down in a dark room behind a two-way mirror to observe prospective customer subjects who’ve been recruited for this exercise by a third party company.
On the other side of the glass, in the “laboratory”, a professional moderator probes the recruited subjects for their opinions using a series of exercises that include creating collages or writing imaginary obituaries for the brand in question. In the dark, so to speak, the marketing team eats M&Ms, makes jokes, and hopes desperately to be illuminated.
A typical three-day trip, comprised of perhaps six groups and 18 hours of requisite video, at a cost approaching $30,000, gets consolidated into four minutes of tape and an executive report for presentation to the ultimate decision makers, who are usually too busy to actually attend the groups. Like a Safari tourist thrilled to see wild animals up close in their natural habitat, the decision makers lean in, watch the video intently, and believe they’re actually seeing their customers.
Seems like a few too many intermediaries, wouldn’t you say?
In this day and age could we make our interaction with customers and prospects any more contrived? Compare the above to what we, as marketers, can get on Twitter: 24/7 access to what real customers are thinking, feeling, saying and wishing for. We can listen, ask questions, seek advice, and solicit reactions. Want a dialog? Just start one. Prefer to eavesdrop on positive or negative things being said about your brand? Simply employ the power of search.twitter.com. Need to create a group conversation? Invite followers to a hashtag and take advantage of Tweetchat.
All right, so maybe you have an idea or product or initiative that you don’t want public. There are plenty of other tools available, from Communispace (at a cost) to Ning (for free). With the latter, courtesy of Netscape founder Marc Andreessen you can gather customers and prospects in your own social network, take advantage of a wide range of functionality that includes blogs, discussion groups and media, even get customers to keep journals of how they do or don’t use your products.
Today there are more ways than ever to get close to your customers. And there are more customers than ever willing to share their thoughts and reactions with you. Even if you don’t pay them $50.00 and offer them a sandwich. You just have to do one thing. Get rid of the two-way mirror.
What do you think? Are focus groups dead? Share your thoughts, especially if you disagree.
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