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Marketing Content Strategy

What Ever Happened to Focus Groups?

5 Minute Read

There are some days when I feel like I’m living in an episode of The Jetsons (if the Jetsons were marketers).

Every year, the marketing tech landscape expands with new toys to play with. A growing catalog of analytics dashboards dominates my bookmarks bar. Developing new content strategy seems to require more technical knowledge every day.

With a thousand and one different ways to gather, analyze, and automate data practices, it’s no wonder that marketers are finding themselves running on-site focus groups or distributing paper surveys less often. Person-to-person research gets labeled “traditional” in a digital age, bearing with it the suggestion that traditional research is likely to be slower and costlier.

As marketers become more deeply ingrained in their digital platforms and workflows, does this necessarily mean that non-digital research methods become obsolete? Or is there still a place for more traditional intelligence gathering in the marketer’s toolbox?


Image attribution: Nik Macmillan

Digits and Descriptions

Lauren Lampen is the marketing director for The Bernett Group, a marketing research company that uses a host of methodologies to gather information about people, interests, and the world their clients are operating in today.

“Focus groups, as marketers or the C-suite might traditionally think of them, [happen] in the conference room,” she says. “But that doesn’t have to be the case any longer.”

Right from the start of our conversation, it’s clear that Lauren and Bernett haven’t bought into this idea that marketing tools get old. Rather, they look for ways to ensure that their methods improve with new technology as it comes out. The mental image of a focus group—respondents milling about a table of free coffee and donuts before a session—becomes a satire rather than the reality.

“The internet, mobile devices, really allows marketers to conduct market research in a virtual format. Bringing the expertise of focus groups into a virtual format—that’s more convenient, more cost effective, that meets people where they are—that opens up being able to tap into a larger audience or a more specific audience.”

But for content marketers trying to inform their content strategy, this still might seem inefficient. Why should my team wait to hear back from a scheduled focus group when a couple of website plugins can provide us with thousands of metrics about how all of my visitors are interacting with my content?

“People should step back and see focus groups as an instrument for gathering qualitative data,” Lampen explains. “Qualitative and quantitative data should really be considered for any marketing research strategy.”

This is where marketing tech tunnel vision becomes our own worst enemy as content marketers. It can be easy to assume that because your team has hard, quantitative metrics on your visitors’ web behavior, you know everything about them. But one place that all of our new digital marketing tools falls short is in this vital category of qualitative data that provides necessary context for the numerical data we pull in.

In fact, the amount of data we’re able to pull from each individual serves to muddy the picture. On one hand we have improved tracking capabilities, but on the other, users are spending less and less time on our pages. The result is that overall behaviors we see regarding our content are the result of any number of causes, but we try to describe all of these through a singular trend. Parsing these causes out quantitatively can mean long rounds of hypothesizing and testing. Describing this data qualitatively just takes some conversations with your target audience.


Image attribution: Eli DeFaria

Getting Focused

For the marketer who’s ready to bring focus groups or other qualitative research methods into their content strategy development, it can be difficult to know where to start. If developing a research treatment were so simple, we might expect to see more marketing groups defaulting to qualitative research more frequently with each new marketing challenge.

One of the primary differences between analytics research and qualitative research is the need to qualify your respondents.

“It is important that when you’re qualifying people, you’re able to sort out someone who just wants to earn money, or do focus groups as a side profession,” Lauren says. “That’s not the type of feedback we’re trying to gather.”

Qualifying your target respondents has to come back to your research goal and guiding question: What exactly are you trying to learn about your audience, your content experience, your brand perception? From whom do you want to understand these experiences? This is a space where your past quantitative data can come in handy, either as a means of automatically selecting people out of your engaged audience based on behavioral criteria, or providing some clue as to what disengaged audience you might want to explore.

The next step is to identify what format best fits your research question. For marketers trying to understand their immediate regional area, the classic conference room setup might be appropriate. But for the lion’s share of marketers looking to meet more spread out audiences, a blend of digital conferencing, recording, and interaction solutions can be brought together to form a smart panel specific to your needs.

But the most essential element of a successful focus group doesn’t have anything to do with the tech you use or the people you speak to. As a parting thought, Lampen offers advice to marketers about what really makes or breaks a successful research initiative:

“Don’t assume anything. Be open to listening. You may have a plan or objective about the information you’re trying to infer, but don’t plan that route to getting there.”

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Featured image attribution: Alexandre Chambon

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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