In recent years, some digital pundits have claimed the death of the focus group. Publications as influential as the Wall Street Journal have claimed that new approaches to customer listening have made focus groups redundant. Although we tend to look forwards to new innovations, it’s worth remembering significant ways focus groups have changed the world.
These past innovations remind us of the ways focus groups still can facilitate growth and change:
The First ‘Focus Group’ – Propaganda In World War II
It could be said that the first ‘focus group’ (though it was not called this at the time) was a group established by the sociologist Robert K. Merton and his associated Paul Lazerfeld during World War II. They duo were asked to investigate how mass communication affects people socially and psychologically.
The insights the duo gleaned, for example in media production techniques, are still used today, and their findings gave the US propaganda machine vital material.
Chrysler And The Segmented-By-Gender Focus Group
The 1950s saw US automotive company Chrysler Plymouth battling to sell its convertible. Focus groups uncovered that wives were preventing their husbands from impulsively buying sports cars, influencing their decisions to choose trustworthy sedans over flashier models. By adjusting advertising to target women in response, Chrysler Plymouth increased its market share and developed a ‘family car’ name for itself.
The AIDS Crisis And Psychological Research In The LGBTQI Community
Focus groups have also helped deliver crucial insights in psychology. In the 1980s, for example, at the height of the AIDS crisis, researchers decided to create a more open research group in the LGBTQI community to understand attitudes to AIDS and the medical community’s handling of the crisis.
By adopting a more open approach (homosexuality had been classified as a mental illness until 1990 in the US) and using focus groups, the medical community gathered helpful insights for addressing the epidemic.
Barack Obama’s Winning Focus Group
When Barack Obama ran for the presidency of the US, he faced tough opposition from the established Clinton brand. Research helped his campaign. Findings of focus groups, for example, showed that ads featuring Obama’s voice created a stronger connection in the viewer. This motivated his campaign to create successful campaigns using Obama’s voice prominently.
Cloud-hosted conference calls now make it possible to host focus groups from anywhere. If anything, instead of making focus groups redundant, new technology has given businesses, political parties and organisations new ways to gather actionable customer insights.