Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Listen Up, Marketers: The Focus Group Is Dead

I'll start this column with a few quotes:

"What we didn't get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn't something that came out in the research." -Neil Campbell, president, Tropicana, North America to The New York Times upon pulling its revamped packaging in February after consumer complaints.

"We have heard your concerns about the ad that was featured on our website. We are parents ourselves and we take feedback from moms very seriously." -Kathy Widmer, vice president of marketing, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, upon pulling a Motrin ad after mothers expressed outrage about it in November.

"Over the past couple of days, we received a lot of questions and comments about the changes and what they mean for people and their information. Based on this feedback, we have decided to return to our previous terms of use while we resolve the issues that people have raised." -Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook, responding to user outrage over changes made, without user input, to its terms of service in February.

"The testing we've done has been incredibly positive." -David Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel to The New York Times on Monday about its proposed new name, Syfy. So far, a post on Sci Fi's own blog about the new name contains more than 900 mostly negative comments, and has more than 1500 Diggs.

I assume most Social Media Insider readers would agree with the statement that corporate America needs to do a little work on this listening thing. What I love about all of these examples is that, even if many of you have preached this gospel for some time, there's an increasing body of evidence to support why this is so important. This week's Syfy example (and yes, I did post about this over at the BNET Media blog to which I also contribute), marks at least the fourth time since November in which a major corporation has gotten itself in hot water through the act, or in-act, of not listening. If I were you, I'd clip and save those four quotes and trot them out to all of my clients.

But this column isn't just about not listening. It's about the fact that so often, if companies do, they commit a significant sin of omission, listening to customers who were either not invested in their brand very much or not invested in it at all. Worse, they do this listening in the contrived environment of the focus group. The president of Tropicana admitted that it didn't listen to its loyal customers, in his interview with the Times, for example.

Then there's the whole question of what compels a corporation to engage in big change initiatives in the first place. More often it's from within, rather than from without, where the consumers live. This quote from designer Peter Arnell, from the press conference about the new Tropicana packaging, particularly stands out: "There was a strong drive to bring a big messaging onto the carton where the biggest single billboarding was." On whose part? Why do I doubt it was the consumer's?

The people at Sci Fi, or SyFy, or whatever you care to call it, pounded their chests over the testing they did with consumers over the new name, but as Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer for TNS Cymfony, speculated yesterday, in all likelihood those focus groups were not the media property's core audience, but the people they were looking to attract. It's highly ironic that in the Times interview, Howe actually says that he wanted to avoid a "Tropicana debacle," only to immediately find himself in one. He thought he was listening, but was he listening to the right people? Doesn't look like it.

I'm certainly sympathetic to the challenge companies face in trying to expand beyond their core, but, courting new lovers at the expense of the old is a recipe for disaster, and it's only compounded when focus groups are held up as the last word in what consumers want. "You need a little safe, quiet laboratory to test these things in -- and focus groups are not it," Nail said to me yesterday. "Because there's always the dynamic that people are showing up for their $50 and M&Ms."

Exactly. While that's always been the case, as use of social media channels becomes more ubiquitous, the very idea that a focus group is valuable is ridiculous -- when compared with the real conversation taking place among the people who really care about your brand. The focus group is dead. But when will marketers notice?

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