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Focus groups provide creative guidance and direction

In the world of advertising, focus groups have become a way of life. By definition they are qualitative group discussions to learn in-depth information in a specific category. Size of the group varies and a facilitator is used to keep the discussion on track. The payoff can be creative guidance and direction, but are focus groups really effective in steering advertising campaigns?

Tom Robinson, president of Robinson & Associates of Tupelo, answers with an affirmative. His agency has used focus groups for many clients over his 36 years in the advertising business. Groups come together to give opinions on a specific product and its features and benefits or a name or brand or situation. “I’m a believer in them. They work well for us,” he said. “They’re not right in all situations but they’re an important part of the job we do.”

Although conducting focus group research is not inexpensive, he feels it’s worth it because agencies and clients can find out things they can’t find out any other way.

“Focus groups do not replace quantitative research. They’re not intended to do the same thing. It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” he said. “With focus groups you can take a limited subject and refine it, and you can get emotions and opinions you can’t get with a telephone survey.”

Robinson notes that clients are sometimes surprised by what they hear. “Focus groups are not for the faint of heart. You get what you get,” he said.

He says his agency has changed advertising campaigns as a result of information from focus groups. In one instance, the agency wanted to talk about a particular subject, a new consumer product, but the assembled group was unhappy about a competitor’s product and took the discussion time to vent. A second group did the same thing.

“It was the darndest situation I’ve ever found myself in. We used it to our advantage and came home and changed our campaign,” he said. “It helped us hone in on characteristics of our product.”

Maris, West & Baker Advertising Agency in Jackson also uses focus groups as a research tool and has changed campaigns based on them. “One such time was a consumer program testing for a name that focused on women age 35 to 45,” said Peter Marks, president. “The name didn’t mean anything to the women in the group and we changed the name based on that.”

He reminds that a classic example of a bad name choice for a product was the Nova automobile made by Chevrolet. Sales were good in the U.S. but the auto company would have saved millions of advertising dollars if they had executed a focus group prior to launching the car in Mexico where it did not do well. In Spanish, nova means “no go.”

“Focus groups serve as a vehicle to identify possible barriers to product success and to determine if your message is on target. Many marketers market by assumption. In doing so, they gamble millions of dollars only to find they were off the mark,” Marks said.

He thinks focus groups are most effective as a preliminary tool to fine tune market research guidelines. “Often what the researcher believes to be important may be far different from what the end user may find important,” he added.

Reed Guice, president of the Guice Agency in Biloxi, says he doesn’t use focus groups much although he’s a firm believer in research. “It can be one of the most important aspects in advertising,” he said. “Focus groups can be valuable but it really depends on the experience of the facilitator. Good results can be tainted by the facilitator. Many times a dominant personality in a group can give you results that would not be duplicated in your target group at large. You’ve got to make sure you use the right facilitator to prevent that.”

Marks and Robinson agree with Guice on the facilitator’s importance. “A facilitator should recognize that a dominant personality is leading the group and shift it to neutralize that personality,” Marks said. “A good moderator is crucial to the process and can also identify underlying issues and explore them.”

Information must be interpreted to be useful. That’s why Marks says the most important component of a focus group is the summary. “A good moderator can pick up on not only what is said, but what was communicated,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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