Category Archives: Focus Groups

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).
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Steve Jobs on Focus Groups

Steve JobsSteve Jobs of Apple once said this:

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (Business Week, May 25, 1998)

Thanks to Harris for passing this one along.

It’s true. Focus groups have their place, but they can never be considered the law. They still only represent a segment, and it’s a segment that is naturally being encouraged to be opinionated. My experience with focus groups has shown that they are best at giving you new ideas, but don’t deny your on convictions over them. Lead the way. Like Apple does.