What Caucuses and Focus Groups Have in Common

Marketing and the Presidential CaucusesIn summary, EVERYTHING.

The similarities between a presidential campaign and a marketing campaign are staggeringly abundant, mainly because they are both marketing campaigns at the end of the day.

As we’ve entered caucus season for the ’08 election, the first glaring commonality is too easy to see: Caucuses are just focus groups with a more “presidential” name.

For years now, more and more marketers have shifted opinions on the importance of focus groups, mostly noting that they don’t work, they don’t reveal too much, and they’re a big waste of time and money.

So here are 6 ways the similarities are obvious, with examples from this year’s campaign to date:

  1. Both are used for risk-reduction. Executives love riding the fence on a strategic decision until they can be assured by a focus group that something’s gonna work. Political parties want to know which candidates are the most respected. The problem is that you only water something down when you reduce too much risk. And reducing too much risk is almost always the outcome of focus groups. Ron Paul has some pretty crazy ideas, but if you think about some of them, they make sense. Doesn’t matter. His crazy ideas that might work will always be overshadowed by more widely-accepted policies that please people but won’t really make that big a difference (or will be discussed and argued over in Congress for years). The same will happen to your product when you let a focus group direct product development.
  2. Demographics can be deceiving. All white people don’t think the same. All women don’t think the same. All white women who live in Houston don’t think the same. All white women who live in Houston with 2 kids, a cat and are part of a household income of $120,000 – $180,000 don’t think the same. Most importantly, however, is that any group of people locked up in a room and given the chance to give feedback are not going to think the same, regardless of what they have in common, AND regardless of what they say. Iowa doesn’t represent the rest of the nation, nor does New Hampshire. The bigger issue, though, is how the decision-making process if affected when Iowa and New Hampshire voters are placed in the spotlight and know they’re input is being massively amplified. The spotlight can cause stage fright for some, while others soak it up. In both cases, you won’t see the real person. Stages are for actors. Especially the national stage.
  3. Both are relied upon way too much. Million dollar decisions are often based on what 8 knuckleheads in a room think about your company. Potential presidents will be thrown aside due to what a few farmers and a few yuppies think of them. It’s not the knuckleheads’ fault – it’s the business owner’s fault. Focus groups are great for testing certain tactics; they suck at deciding on overall direction, simply because they don’t have the background to make such a decision. Mitt Romney is a strong candidate. So is Hilary Clinton. However, if they blow it in New Hampshire tonight, they could be finished. Because what the people in Iowa and New Hampshire think must be what the rest of the nation thinks, right?
  4. Both are too often cited. Once the focus group has exited the building, the decision has been made, the product has been launched and the plan has been executed, problems will inevitably arise. And, inevitably, research from the focus group will be cited. “The blue product isn’t selling like the green one, even though everyone in the focus group preferred it.” “The American people said they wanted change, but now they’re too scared to support it.” We all need someone other than ourselves to blame when things go wrong. Focus groups seem like the responsible option, given they count as “data” and are supposed to represent the masses. Obviously, 8 people can’t effectively represent 20 million people, and we marketers are the ones with the training and experience in knowing consumers, not the knuckleheads in the focus groups. Be sure any decision you make is the one you can stand by without blaming the focus group. Cuz the focus group can’t get fired, but you can.
  5. They both usually measure the wrong thing. Most people use focus groups to find out if someone likes their new product. We want to measure product acceptance, but focus groups can’t do that. Focus group participants are most often liars, for one reason or another. Either they don’t want to hurt any feelings, or they want their voice to be prominent. In both situations, they aren’t being accurate. Stores aren’t filled with tables where clerks talk about a product for an hour because shoppers don’t want to shop that way. Come Election Day in November, most voting booths won’t have the hoopla surrounding them and the exit polls awaiting us. The event itself has a huge effect on the outcome, and that’s why you can’t trust them for overall acceptance. But, that’s what they’re most often used for.
  6. They can’t measure what needs to be measured. This might sound a lot like #5, but it’s different. Not only do focus groups usually measure the wrong thing, but it’s impossible for them to measure the right thing. There are far too many intangibles that go into a successful product life cycle to expect a simple 4 hour focus group to unveil. Unknowns such as returns, effectiveness, retail availability, the economy and spreadability. Same goes for presidential candidates. We measure responses to debates, policies, attire, religion, their family, and much more. But at the end of the day, a president’s major characteristic must be the ability to lead. Which heavily relies on followers who are willing to follow. Most importantly, though, it relies on trust. And that takes a pretty long time to establish. Look at Rudy – his lifestyle and policies are often frowned upon, but I don’t think you can question his ability to lead. No one really remembers Lincoln’s policies, or FDR’s. But we do remember how well they led. Unfortunately, most voters at caucuses aren’t voting within that paradigm, which means we aren’t measuring what needs to be measured. (FYI, my Rudy example is not a sign of open endorsement – just an example).

5 responses to “What Caucuses and Focus Groups Have in Common

  1. All you have really claimed is that focus groups done badly are not very good.

    It’s also true that done well and used properly they can be extremely valuable tools to decision makers.

  2. Tony – you’re right. It just rarely happens, and what most people think is “good” (get product acceptance) in fact is bad.

    Got any quick tips on what makes focus groups valuable?

  3. Pingback: What we’ve learned from Iowa and New Hampshire « Brett’s Blog

  4. Good post, but a couple of things.

    A) Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the country but what they allow the rest of us to see is how candidates do when they actually have to sit down and talk to real people. Think of them as product testers. They kick the tires, ask difficult questions and generally check to see if it/they are above board. The rest of us rely on slick marketing messages from candidates and on the spin provided from news sources and blogs.

    2) Focus groups. Yeah, I’ve sat through a lot of bad ones. But the trick is to know what you want to learn and write a better discussion guide in order to find out what you want to learn, and ask lots of probing follow up questions to flush out inconsistencies and make respondents dig past their surface canned answers.

    3) Conventional wisdom seems to think that Focus Groups are putting a bunch of people in a room with mirrored glass and M&Ms. In fact, I think that focus groups are more like a Swiss Army knife that you can use for a number of settings and in a number of ways…if you know how to use them.

    4) agreed, focus groups are part of the input and shouldn’t represent the output.

    5) as far as tips go, if you are doing product testing in groups, agreed, not ideal, tell the respondents that you have some samples available to buy at X price and then see how many offer to pay up. This is a better test than a show of hands and it allows you to probe the considerations that suddenly pop in their head.

  5. Ben – great comment. A couple responses:

    To a) I guess I just wonder how “town hallish” the primaries can be. I think the local voters are just as susceptible to the slick marketing that’s reserved the primaries (like all the TV ads).

    To 2) I agree with you there. My commentary here is harsh simply because finding the right discussion guide and purpose for a focus group so that they are effective is, in my experience, rare.

    To 5) I think this is the key. It’s a lot different for someone to simply tell you “yeah, I’d buy that for $50,” and them handing you a credit card to do it.

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