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Focus group = evil business

October 5, 2006

It’s rare that the business world seeps out in a pervasive way into popular culture, “The Apprentice” and the movie “Wall Street” not withstanding, but one mainstay and butt of all jokes is the focus group. Advertisers have even been happy to mock themselves by using them as settings for ads and most recently a whole episode of writing genius Aaron Sorkin’s new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip not only included a focus group, but it was important enough to be the title of the episode.

From the very beginning it’s easy to tell that the focus group was going to be the bad guy. The moderator asks respondents in a test screening what didn’t they like, but the TV execs reassure the Studio Head that the moderator is “a pro”. The respondents are mocked, as its believed they are all out of work writers happy to kill anything for $40 and a sandwich. As soon as the focus group is over, miraculously the report is ready and thrust into the hands of the execs. Not only does it contain the results from the groups they just viewed, but from others conducted around the country, talk about instant feedback.

It’s clear that the report isn’t qualitative, it’s a dangerous hybrid (a genetically modified monster), there’s quantitative data thrown into it; there are “top two box scores” and “percentages”. The research finds that the show scores high, but the really serious insight is that Republicans are also watching the show. The report then makes its way onto the set and is passed around from the writers and on to the actors.

Sorkin uses the focus group and the subsequent report as a character, something that represents the narrow minded, gutless world of corporate execs who are only to happy to stifle creativity. Nasty, evil, suited guys crushing the creative bugs like cockroaches under the soles of their $500 Church’s shoes with the evidence of their henchman, the focus group.

It’s dangerous is when the archetype dominates the conversation, because it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy; popular culture shows focus groups as evil destroyers of creativity, therefore all focus groups are evil.

Since “don’t be evil” is the corporate mantra of corporate America’s latest poster child, Google, under what conditions would any sane corporation seriously consider doing focus groups?

Let’s use Sorkin’s example as what not to do.

Influx says use them if you follow these 6 simple rules.

1. Never mix quantitative with qualitative- if you want numbers, don’t be a cheapskate, spend the money.

2. Reports cannot be instantaneously generated- they need time and careful analysis and should be presented in person.What people say and mean are not the same, a skilled researcher can tell the difference, but it takes time to interpret.

3. Screen and re-screen respondents to make sure they are able to make a meaningful contribution. Screen on site to be sure.

4. Think about your facilities- dull fluorescent places that double as hospital wards are out, if you want suggestions of alternatives, please talk to us.

5. Finally, the hired gun moderator is out, sure you need objectivity, but find someone who understands ideas, knows how to present them, asks great questions, can encourage conversation and is a active contributor to the strategic process. No more “raise your hands”,”what’s wrong with it?” and one-page reports of findings for $1,000 a group.

6. Research doesn’t give you the answer, it’s a guide, a feel and should never be used as a substitute for decision making.

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