Social Media’s Role in the Death of the Focus Group

January 3, 2010 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

As a seasoned consultant (yes, that’s to say I’m old), I have planned, conducted and analyzed the results of many focus groups.  I’m predicting that in five years, focus groups as I’ve known them will not exist.  In fact, I’ve already seen a significant decline in organizations’ use of focus groups for employee and market research.  Maybe they won’t go away completely, but I think they will have different purposes, be designed differently, and take on a different level of importance in the process of gathering input and information.

The way it was

Back in the day, companies would take the focus group approach when they wanted to not just collect information, such as you might do using a survey, but also get qualitative input from a particular audience.  Often, the audience was handpicked based on a set of pre-determined criteria.  The audience might be provided in advance with some background information about the focus group exercise — even given a list of questions and topics to be discussed.  Sometimes they were only provided with general information, like: “Discussion around employee communications.”

A focus group project took considerable time to organize and implement.  That, of course, translated into considerable cost for the company (and income for the consultant).  So, as it was, focus groups were slow and they were expensive.  I believe those are just two reasons companies are resorting less to focus groups these days.

The way it is

Now when there are issues a company wants employee or customer input on, they have many more options beyond the traditional focus group.  I’m speaking of social media, of course.  And depending on how involved the organization has become in today’s technology, the options for reaching their target groups are numerous.  They can use their blog sites, Twitter, social networks, content communities, or any other means of engagement they’ve established. 

Established?  Ahh, that’s past tense.  But we’re talking about NOW.  Is this really the way it IS?  Are companies using online technology and their employee/customer networks to get the information they formerly gathered through focus groups?  Are they now saving thousands and thousands of dollars by skipping the time-consuming step of gathering people together to be led through a discussion by a consultant who then spends more time compiling the input and then feeding it back to them – usually from his or own personal perspective? 

Some companies are reaping the benefits of conducting this aspect of their business – gathering input and feedback – with the help of social media.  Some companies, though, are wasting a lot of time and money because they’re trying to use social media, but they haven’t taken the steps necessary to build their platforms, develop their networks, and nurture their culture with the strategic intent of fully embracing a new way of doing business.

The way it will be

Like I said, I predict it will be about five years before the focus group as we know it will be dead.  Between now and then, as others are predicting, organizations will accept and embrace new media.  They will learn how to use it and make sure their employees know how to use it.  They will identify specific objectives and strategies for using it – I imagine information gathering will be among them.  They will choose their tools, modify their infrastructure, and create a different if not new space in which information will flow.

My purpose is not to make a profound prediction about the impact of social media.  As anyone knows, this prediction abounds.  I’m simply here to emphasize that the decision to “go forth” in this way is not a matter of saying the word, flipping a switch, and saying it’s done.  It will require a process.  It will be thought out and planned and piloted and improved upon.  It will take time and toil and trial and teamwork.  It will also (still) take money.  But if you’re planning on spending money on focus groups in the future, it would be better spent now on building your capabilities and forums that can be used not only as modified focus groups, but for myriad business initiatives.  What would those be?  Think: customer service and relationship management, recruiting, public relations, research and development, training, marketing, sales.  But, those are subjects for another blog.



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