Ad Agencies: Are focus groups dead?

Focus Groups

Focus Groups

Is it time to get rid of the two-way mirror?

Our world of advertising is quickly changing. Our industry will experience more change in the next 5 years than we have in the past 50. It will impact every aspect of agency life, from the way we generate leads and new business acquisitions to billing and services we offer. To grow new business agencies will need to evolve quickly as the old ways of doing our work evolves with new communication technologies.

Edward Boches, CCO at Mullen, in a recent article raises this question, “are focus groups really necessary at all?” With all of the alternatives that are available through social media, focus groups seem to be a costly practice that now looks absurd.

He describes a typical focus group event:

“Think about it.  A bunch of folks from a marketing firm and its client fly to some distant city (usually Cincinnati or Minneapolis), drive to an innocuous suburban park and hunker down in a dark room behind a two-way mirror to observe prospective customer subjects who’ve been recruited for this exercise by a third party company.

On the other side of the glass, in the “laboratory”, a professional moderator probes the recruited subjects for their opinions using a series of exercises that include creating collages or writing imaginary obituaries for the brand in question. In the dark, so to speak, the marketing team eats M&Ms, makes jokes, and hopes desperately to be illuminated.

A typical three-day trip, comprised of perhaps six groups and 18 hours of requisite video, at a cost approaching $30,000, gets consolidated into four minutes of tape and an executive report for presentation to the ultimate decision makers, who are usually too busy to actually attend the groups. Like a Safari tourist thrilled to see wild animals up close in their natural habitat, the decision makers lean in, watch the video intently, and believe they’re actually seeing their customers.”

I would encourage you to read his entire article, “Do we still need the two-way mirror when we have tools like Twitter?

Internet-based research is becoming increasingly popular as companies regularly conduct on-line studies more quickly and more cost effectively than with traditional methods.

My experience with focus groups and social media leads me to believe that social is a much better alternative. Social media becomes such a great brand and positioning tool because of the kinds of online engagements we can have with our target audience. Through social you can also easily test things like marketing messages and and even concepts plus you can affordably receive feedback from a much larger group.

The Future of Research Online

Jeff Rosenblum is director of Internet research, and Chris Grecco is director of quantitative research, at King Brown & Partners, a San Francisco research firm, fielded a study to compare traditional research methods such as phone research and mail surveys to online methods. While online is not the ideal solution in all cases, it has many advantages over non-Web-based methods. Some of the benefits include:

  • Cost and time savings: Compared to traditional research methodologies, on-line studies are conducted with an average savings of more than 40 percent in cost, with commensurate reductions in cycle time.
  • Increased accuracy: While some audiences are more difficult to contact on-line, other targets are significantly easier to reach and more receptive to completing surveys via the Internet
  • Increased concept testing capabilities: By enhancing the questionnaire instrument with graphics or multimedia elements in surveys, Internet-based research is a more compelling stimulus environment than traditional methods. Respondents who see or hear a new product or advertising concept provide more valid and richer responses than those who simply hear the concept read to them over the telephone.
  • Greater survey control: On-line surveys have greater control with regards to interview bias, sampling, skip patterns, awareness testing and stimulus materials.

What is your opinion?

Another article that may be of interest: Big Advertisers Agree to Test Online Research (New York Times)


About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.


  1. Not many agency folks will disagree with this assessment. How honest can the testimony be when gathered in such an unnatural environment?

    In my post, “Contrived Findings from Windowless Rooms” at , I point out that participants are often “in” on the game. They know there are marketing voyeurs behind the mirror. They know every word they say is being recorded, discussed, evaluated. They guess at the group’s sponsor and purpose, and modify their opinions accordingly.

    In “Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups,” Daniel Gross, business columnist for Newsweek and Slate, says, “Evidence suggests focus group participants often lie.”

    An important question: Is online research any more valid, or just less expensive?

  2. Kirk,

    Thanks for your additional insights. I enjoyed reading your article.

  3. Social media and online survey tools are great for gathering quick, current research. Sometimes it pays to have face to face conversations with people, where you can see their reactions and get them to elaborate on thoughts. The focus group itself can have merit. In my experience, clients often use them to validate what they already know or they dismiss what they don’t want to hear as useless information gleaned from a bunch of idiots.

    To show the value focus groups can bring, look to Hyundai. Their “Assurance” program was born out of focus group research and helped them become one of two automakers to turn a profit over the past year. You can read their story here:

  4. Bob Fichtner says:

    I’ve only been in market research for 23 years, but focus groups must have nine lives, because they have repeatedly been declared dead and yet still they live.

    2004 –
    2000 –
    1998 –
    1994 –

    As with any research tool (or any tool for that matter), when used correctly, focus groups can provide invaluable insights to the researcher and their clients. Research that uses crowd-sourcing techniques are subject to many of the same issues – non-response bias, respondent self-selection, income bias, gender bias, age bias, etc.

    In the hands of good practitioners of research, who will recommend the right tool for the right reasons, focus groups can provide relevant, cost-effective results in a desired time frame.

    The focus group is dead? Long live the focus group!

  5. I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but the way agencies generally use data from focus groups is incorrect.

    The reason is a condition called ‘Confirmation Bias’ which is the influence a ‘dominant’ individual has over others without or without their knowledge.

    A person can be seen as dominant professionally – superior title, senior experience; personally – attractive, clever, witty, strong willed; etc.

    We believe focus groups are good to pull out the general attributes a consumer could value, but an analysis is necessary to uncover exactly how much an individual values EACH attribute over another (via a conjoint analysis for example).

    Mike Fogarty
    Twitter: @KokoChgo

  6. Focus groups, when done correctly, raise the right questions. They are terrible at answering them, though, which is why so many get frustrated with them.

    In depth one-on-one interviews will cost less and give you better results. Ethnography – the closest analog to the ‘safari hunter’ metaphor – gives us a better chance to observe rather than be told what the subject thinks we want to hear. Focus groups are wonderful if we need qualitative feedback to grow an idea where the group dynamic helps. If it doesn’t, a focus group is a bad use of $4,000.

    It’s a rare agency that actually wants to test its creative. Focus groups are so ambiguous that they can be packaged in such a way that they validate almost any preconception. Maybe that’s why they’re still around.


  7. Another point to add to “Increased accuracy” is the anonymity that comes with online surveys/market research participation. People are more apt to speak their minds, to their hearts desire no less as the hawthorne effect (being watched) keeps participants from being true to themselves and their perceptions.

    But I must also state that it is not dead and one review of the current Domino’s campaign should suffice to keep real-life market research as part of the brand and product development process.

  8. Thanks for sharing your insights Sasha.

  9. Interesting points that you made Michael. The online monitoring of these comments does, in effect, accomplish the same objectives as an in-person focus groups. I feel that in-person focus groups are still beneficial (see recent Domino’s Pizza ad campaigns). Regardless of which method is used (in-person or online), I like the recent strategies that companies are taking to increase transparency. Domino’s has launched a large campaign based on their in-person focus groups and HGTV has used viewer tweets and Facebook wall posts in recent advertisements to respond to viewer comments. By publicly addressing these customer views, it shows other customers/prospects that the company is concerned with customer feedback.

  10. Thanks for the additional insight Philip.

  11. This just made my day much brighter. Thanks a lot. Something else I came across was this Focus Group Research .Take a look!

  12. Just to let you know… your site looks very strange in Mozilla on a Mac

  13. I loved online research at first, but now it is very difficult without using a panel. There is a lack of engagement and energy in online focus groups. Isn’t online viewing of a live focus group the best of both worlds? That never seemed to catch on.

  14. florciampoli says:

    I live and work in Panama, Central America and i have to say thanks to all of you. I’m learning a lot from all of the opinions and facts you are sharing here. In Panama internet penetration still needs to grow, thats why i cant compare but a few months ago i started to work “in advance” with a mixed formula, i mean, online surveys: with open surveys distributed by mail or promoted banners and private surveys with the facebook fans community of my clients. With all the feedback i get from this i work the questionary for a reduced number of focus group sessions. I save some money, prepare more accurate questions and in a few sessions (with the facebook fans members) i also share some info from the open surveys with them. I have to say i was a bit nervous at first (its my clients money!!) but we ended up with remarkable results and found great help from people who love our brands and want to help us make a better work.
    I dont know if this is ok, but its working for me at least for now.

    PS: English is difficult for me. Sorry if i write o use it in a wrong way.

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