In 1937, on the campus of Princeton University, a small group—the Office of Radio Research (ORR)—formed with a novel mission: to study the impact of media and communication on consumers. It was the intersection of two fledgling disciplines: social science and consumer research. One of its earliest efforts analyzed the panicked reaction of the public to Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
The ORR eventually moved to Columbia University and changed its name to the Bureau of Applied Social Research. In 1944, the Bureau began to study the impact of military propaganda films on viewers. Why did various scenes or phrases make the audience think or act in a certain way? Knowing this helped the government craft messages that created greater support for the war.
It quickly became clear that focus groups could do a lot more than just provide insights about the public’s opinion about the war. They could unlock a whole new way of understanding and articulating consumer preferences and opinions. But first they needed a visionary.
Robert K. Merton and the “focused interview”
Shortly after the ORR moved to Columbia and changed its name, Robert K. Merton, a young sociologist, joined the staff. Merton developed a technique, which he called the “focused interview,” to get participants in the Bureau’s research groups to reveal their reaction to texts, radio programs and films. The focus group was born.
Merton had a long and impressive career at Columbia. He’s credited with coining terms such as “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “role model.” His studies of integration contributed to social psychologist Kenneth Clark’s persuasive brief in Brown v. Board of Education. And he was the first social scientist to win a National Medal of Science, which he was awarded in 1994.
Focus groups and consumer insights
Robert Merton’s importance to sociology and to the acceptance of focus groups as a valuable research tool is unquestioned. But, starting in the 1950s, Viennese Austrian Ernest Dichter—the father of motivational research—made focus groups the go-to choice for consumer product research in the United States.
Dichter believed that to sell products you needed to understand why people behaved the way they did and how certain products made them feel. The focus group offered a means to those ends.
From soap to cars to gasoline
Dichter helped Proctor & Gamble boost sluggish sales of Ivory soap. He interviewed 100 people at YMCAs and found that people didn’t just think of bathing as washing away dirt but as psychologically cleansing, too. P&G placed a bet on his insight and it paid off with increased sales and a new slogan, “Be Smart and Get a Fresh Start with Ivory Soap.”
Hired by Chrysler to help sell its Plymouth model, Dichter found the key role women play in men’s buying decisions and recommended ads in women’s magazines. Time Magazine declared, “Viennese psychologist discovers gold mine for Chrysler.”
Focus groups led by Dichter also helped Esso (later known as, ExxonMobil) make a profitable link between people’s association of cars with power. Out of that insight eventually came the slogan, “Put a Tiger in Your Tank.”
Viewed in hindsight, it may be hard to see why focus groups were instrumental to these successful campaigns. But the power of focus groups is not measured in the slogans or campaigns they helped spawn, but in the way they put consumers directly in the spotlight.
These days, consumers have no shortage of options for having their voices heard—does this mean that focus groups are going the way of the pager?
Has social media made focus groups obsolete?
The short answer is, “No.” A more complete and nuanced answer would be that social media has changed the context in which focus groups can add value. Or, put another way, social media has provided a much easier, much bigger way for companies to incorporate consumer opinions into their strategies.
Social media is often called the world’s largest focus group, but there are important distinctions beyond just size—the speed to insight, ease of use, and low overall cost of consumer insight mining on social media make it a real threat to the traditional focus group.
Not only that, but focus groups also have (and always had) some inherent flaws. People are busy. It’s not easy to get them to take part. First, they have travel to a facility. Then the questions and discussion will take at least a couple hours out of their day. For the company organizing the focus group, it’s also resource intensive.
In addition, researchers—the focus group moderators—can introduce bias. Their questions may unintentionally push discussion in one direction while ignoring others. On the other hand, exchanges via social channels are open ended and can span days or even weeks. And, they’ll inevitably include more people, more responses and a greater range of opinions than a two-hour focus group, no matter how well run. We’ve often called social media the 24x7x365 focus group.
The way forward
Steve King of ResearchLive suggests that researchers should combine traditional methods like focus groups with new, data-driven research techniques like social media analytics. As he points out, the purpose of consumer research is to answer the question of real versus claimed behavior. A good example would be the decision Netflix made to base its recommendation engine on user viewing habits not surveys, which it had originally.
AI-Powered Consumer Insights can guide researchers and marketers and help improve the results of small-scale, qualitative marketing efforts like focus groups. They can narrow the field of inquiry, give deeper context, and suggest the most productive questions to produce a more complete picture of the consumer or customer.