Five focus groups that changed the world

Automotive Features Public Sector Retail

Recent reports of the death of the focus group have been greatly exaggerated. Jamin Brazil, CEO of FocusVision explains why the focus group is even more relevant today than it’s ever been...

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In the Wall Street Journal last year there was an extensive article that explored innovations in technology, big data and social media monitoring. It argued that given the growth of new ways of listening to customers, focus groups are no longer a relevant way of collecting insights. But I would argue that in the advent of this tech explosion, focus groups are an even more powerful tool. To start with, just look at the impact they have had historically – key in influencing decisions, from politics to society to business.

As an industry we like to look forward, however it’s worth looking at the huge contribution focus groups have made historically, before setting a path for where they might go next.  So, to set the ball rolling here’s my suggestion of five focus groups that changed the world:

Focus Group #1: Second World War propaganda – the first ‘focused interview'
It’s generally accepted that the first instance of what would go on to be called the ‘focus group’ occurred during World War II. Sociologist Robert K. Merton aka the ‘father of focus groups’ was examining the effectiveness of war propaganda in the US. Focus group research originated when Paul Lazerfeld and Robert K. Merton were asked to use focused interviews to uncover the social and psychological effects of mass communications. These focused interviews were vital in understanding which specific elements within scenes, production techniques, and so forth, were most effective. Providing additional context beyond a binary reaction to the propaganda Merton saw great potential in these collective interviews and went on to develop a set of guidelines for their use that, with a few exceptions, are still applicable today.

Focus Group #2: Women buy cars too…
In the 1950s, Chrysler Plymouth struggled with sales of its convertible until focus groups indicated that it was wives–not husbands–choosing more sensible sedans over youthful exciting cars. Plymouth Chrysler adapted advertising to target women instead, increasing sales and giving the manufacturer a more family-friendly reputation. Ultimately this led to the realisation that women buy cars as much if not more than men, leading to a big change in the way cars are designed, branded and sold.

Focus Group #3: The focus group that identified the psychological effects of AIDS on the gay community
For the first time in history, a focus group overcame the limited knowledge about the gay community by setting out to study the impact of AIDS on gay men. Research on homosexuality had little input from the gay community up until the mid-1980s due to homophobia (homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the World Health Organisation until 1990 ). Due to past researcher bias, gay respondents mistrusted psychologists, so these researchers needed to create a safe, comfortable environment where gays felt they could express their opinions. The research gained insight into the lives of gay men and the vulnerabilities and fear they felt from heterosexuals during the AIDS crisis. Among other concerns, it also highlighted the resentment they held toward the medical community for not taking the disease seriously until it became more prevalent in heterosexual communities. Ultimately, this was the beginning of a change in the LGBT community’s attitude and opinions toward research, and the start of society’s improved understanding of that group.  

Focus Group #4: The focus group that saved Domino’s pizza as we know it
The whole pizza industry was on a downward spiral in 2009, but a focus group helped turn things around for Domino’s. A common trend throughout the research resulted in a broader lesson in corporate responsibility which had wider impact than simple pizza sales. Companies typically never admit they were wrong. Instead they rev up the PR engines. But Domino’s research found that admission is interesting; it’s humanising. When a company admits it’s wrong it begins to seem more human and this lays the foundation for a new relationship. Based on the research, Domino’s created a campaign around the simple notion that instead of running from criticism, it listened to it, responded, and created a better pizza. And it worked. Sales rose 14.3% over the previous year – the largest quarterly same store sales increase in fast food history.

Focus Group #5: How focus groups helped Obama beat the odds
Barack Obama was against the odds in his run for president. He had only two years’ experience, was facing Hillary Clinton as a Democratic nominee backed by the Clinton brand, and he was aiming to become nation’s first African-American president. He beat these odds with the help of research in several ways, but in particular, focus groups produced one of the key learnings that shaped the media. To introduce voters to Obama, short film clips of him speaking were shown. The results were clear: the power of Obama’s voice made any ad stronger by creating a deeper connection. These findings meant that they designed all the advertising to include a vocal track of Obama speaking. The rest is history.

So, these examples prove the power of the focus group, but what of the future?

The focus group, like any research tool, is open to innovation through technological advancement, and this is happening due to massive progressions in digital storage and streaming. The focus group is nowhere near dead, in fact if you look at the companies at the forefront of focus group technology it’s easy to see we are entering the third age of Focus Groups.

The future has a lot in store; with products like FV360 you can be in the heart of action of a group when you are not even there, creating impactful video from each session at the click of a button with new 360 cameras, video and interactive management tools.  Focus groups have become a multi-functional management tool using live interaction to bring the consumer’s voice to life and right into the boardroom. Given this new technology, anyone can run a group, from anywhere, with participants the world over. This convenience has effectively democratised groups and significantly improved the opportunity for listening and engaging with consumers. Easy access to archives of video data, with access to key word searches means that even if you could not attend a group you can now see the edited and structured video, with zoomed in footage of participants, bringing the experience to life. Clients and researchers alike get a much better grasp on the lives and concerns of consumers and their relationship with brands, products and services, than ever before.

But most importantly, in the world of big data and social media listening described by The Wall Street Journal, the focus group is now even more vital in allowing clients to understand not only ‘what’ is happening in the minds and lives of consumers but ‘why’ – and therefore what actions to take.

So, sorry Wall Street Journal, the focus group is far from dead. In fact, we are entering the third age of groups and I for one am very excited to see where it takes us.

If you want to learn more about FV360 and how it’s taking focus groups into a new age, visit us here and book a demo.