Every few years—although it feels like every few weeks—media professionals from all walks of life come out and claim that focus groups are dead and that we don’t need them. Typically, this is a reaction to some research that didn’t deliver desired results. I tend to get nervous when someone unilaterally claims that something isn’t working—or that something always works. For instance, in my world of non-fiction programming, I often hear comments from programmers like, “Engineering, are you kidding? Engineering never rates.”
With any form of media research—surveys, focus groups, ethnography, Nielsen ratings, social research, you name it—you have to understand its strengths and weaknesses. Focus groups can play a very powerful—but not always necessary—role in the arsenal of any good media researcher. If the researcher’s goal is to be the face of the consumer internally, it’s difficult to do that without actually talking with consumers face-to-face.
Personally, I enjoy a good focus group, particularly with a skilled moderator who understands the psychology of group dynamics. Putting eight to ten people in a conference room to talk about TV (or name your topic) is certainly far removed from reality. (That’s excluding, of course, the 12 meetings a day I have with several of my esteemed colleagues talking about TV.) But did researchers ever claim that focus groups were recreating reality? Does studying Twitter feed comments or Facebook likes and comments constitute “reality?”
Most consumers are pretty savvy; they are smarts enough to know what researchers are looking for in focus groups. They understand that their comments are analyzed by companies on Facebook and can deduce what an online survey is really getting at. Does this make these studies useless? That depends on how smart your team is. Researchers need to use their own experiences and relate comments from research to measured behavior (where possible) in order to really get at what consumers are reacting to. The focus group is a piece of the puzzle, which makes up the entire picture.
What’s important in a focus group, or any study, is an understanding of your goals. Focus groups can’t answer every question, but they can give guidance to help decision-making. If you are using focus groups, or simply any one form of research to make final decisions, it can lead to trouble. 
We use focus groups to tackle a wide variety of issues. Here are some examples:
  • “Taste tests:” Watching TV with consumers is extremely helpful. You can learn a lot of about how viewers react to topics, concepts, talent, pace, etc. We’ve made many changes to our programs based on what we hear in focus groups, just as technology companies have made changes to their products after putting them in the hands of consumers.
  • Brand: Is it the show or the network? Certainly brand attribute tracking, brand maps, etc., are important. Talking about show and network brands directly with consumers is even more telling. Do people watch shows or networks? What is the brand? Is it the network, the show, the talent, the cable company? Yes, is the answer to all those, but finding out what that “yes” means for your business is critical. And that “yes means something different, depending on the case. 
  • What is television? Some of the most fascinating information about people’s television viewing habits and discussions I’ve discovered from focus groups. There are a lot of great syndicated studies tracking behavior, but sitting down and talking to people about how they find out about shows, who makes decisions, what they think of program guides, online video, connected TVs, and so on, is extremely valuable. We can’t lose sight of the fact that the high number of connected TVs sold in the U.S. in 2011 is not just a statistic—there are people watching those sets.
Focus groups can’t answer everything. Frankly, they can’t answer a lot of things. If you think they’ll help you find the next hit, you’re deluding yourself.
But give me the opportunity to speak directly with eight consumers, whether in a room in Cincinnati or on Facebook, and I’ll take it. Every chance to hear our viewer’s point of view is critical to understanding how to keep growing our business. Humans are complicated creatures; it’s easy to forget that when you stare a ratings report every day, but focus groups have the power to remind you that behind every TV, Facebook, online survey and poll, there are people.
(Brad Dancer is the senior vice president for audience and business development at the National Geographic Channels, and a longtime, active member of CTAM. He can be contacted at bdancer@natgeotv.com)

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