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Welcome to the Third Age of Focus Groups

Recent reports of the death of the focus group have been greatly exaggerated. Jamin Brazil, CEO of FocusVision explains why the focus group is even more relevant today than it's ever been.

By Jamin Brazil

In the Wall Street Journal late last year there was an extensive article that explored innovations in technology, big data and social media monitoring. It argued that given the growth of new ways of listening to customers, focus groups are no longer a relevant way of finding insights. But I would argue that in the advent of this tech explosion, focus groups are an even more powerful tool.

The focus group is nowhere near dead.  In fact if you look at the new technology available to set up, run and communicate the results of groups, it’s easy to see we are entering the third age of Focus Groups. There have been massive progressions in digital sharing, storage and streaming. We can now run and record groups from multiple locations like never before – bringing people together to get a mix of views and finding people in out of the way places.

But more than that, technology is really democratizing the focus group, giving voice to people who would not be historically have been able to take part in research and allowing people to set up and run groups who would previously have found them impossible. Given the new technology, anyone can run a group, from anywhere, with participants the world over. This convenience has significantly improved the opportunity for listening and engaging with consumers.

But most importantly, in the world of big data and social media listening described by The Wall Street Journal, the focus group is now even more vital in helping us to understand not only ‘what’ is happening in the minds and lives of consumers but ‘why’ – and therefore what actions to take. In fact, I am certain that with the growth of big data the focus group will become even more important.

Let’s just look at last year’s election. The amount of big data we were supplied with was not a problem. In fact we saw an awful lot of quantitative polling data bandied around from a myriad of sources. Daily polls scrutinized the candidate’s performances at every turn. The polls fed off the media and were in turn fed by them. In this heated atmosphere when the numbers and the stakes are so high, it’s easy to dismiss a bit of qualitative research or the good old focus group as small, old fashioned and behind the curve.

But only looking at the big data of the polls meant many of the pollsters called it wrong – or said it was too close to call. The same happened with the Brexit election in the UK earlier in the year. By using the new tech advances in focus groups, the polling organisations would have gotten a much deeper understanding of what the great US public was really saying. They might have heard the voices of really disenfranchised and disaffected, those who responded to the Trump rallying cries and voted for change.

In addition, having new video technology around focus groups is bringing the true voice of the customer right into the boardroom for the first time.

How? Well, with new 3600 voice activated digital cameras like FV360, you can be in the heart of action of a group when you are not even there. Placed in a room with a physical group, these cameras are triggered by the voice of who is speaking, and the speaker is filmed, so that you will not miss their comments, expressions and reactions ever again. The result is a single video stream of each group (rather than multiple streams, as with static cameras) so less actual video to be reviewed, but with more actual detail, meaning it is much faster and easier to edit into a cohesive film. As a result the moderator and client can together create impactful video from each session at the click of a button.

Once tagged, these films can now be stored by key word, brand name or whatever term you wish, making for simple archive storage and access to key word searches.  So now those not at the group can see the edited and structured video, with zoomed in footage of participants, bringing the experience to life. The ease of editing these tagged films means users can supply the three minute version for the C-suite and the 20 minute version for the marketing team without video editing expertise. And as we all know, the impact of video is far, far, stronger than using a verbatim or even a photographic vox pop approach. Even non-research stakeholders get a much better grasp on the lives and concerns of consumers and their relationships with brands, products and services, than ever before: as we might have seen had some of those pollsters used focus groups during the election.

So, sorry Wall Street Journal, the focus group is far from dead. In fact, we are entering the third age of groups and I for one am very excited to see where it takes us.

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