Future Of Hazy Groups Uncertain

Business Week: My research department doesn’t know it, but I’m killing all our focus groups.” So spoke Cammie Dunaway, chief marketing officer at Yahoo! Inc., at a Silicon Valley conference in September. Dunaway doesn’t plan to harm the groups of innocents that marketers have long assembled in beige conference rooms to observe behind two-way mirrors, like zoo animals, as they hold forth about coffee and shampoo preferences. But she does want to put the two-way-mirror manufacturers out of business.
Exasperation with focus groups, while not universal, is growing as companies look for better ways to get inside consumers’ heads, often assisted by new technology and the Internet. The dissatisfaction and the proliferation of new research approaches has been escalating so rapidly that the ad industry’s main trade group has been spurred to conduct the first widespread study of testing methods since the 1950s.
Perhaps the most common complaint about focus groups is that consumers are not honest in front of other people. America Online Inc. in 2003 saw a disconnect between what men revealed in groups and the complaints about spam it received by e-mail. It turned out that men, in a room with strangers, were not keen to admit they didn’t have full command of their laptops. But in e-mails, they conceded that they were tortured by underperforming spam blockers.
Looking for better methods of predicting consumer acceptance, Pepsi recently turned to Wellesley (Mass.)-based Invoke Solutions, which conducted several instant-message-style online panels of 80 to 100 people collected by its affiliated online survey firm, Greenfield Online. Pepsi delved into attitudes among Gen Xers toward drinking mineral water. In just a few hours, the beverage marketer was able to gather and process detailed feedback from hundreds of consumers. Getting a comparable result from focus groups would have taken several weeks.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.