Marketing and advertising have come a long way since the days of Mad Men and Don Draper. In the coming weeks our Marketing Evolution series will look at which methods have been eclipsed by more technically advanced options, and which old habits have stuck – like focus groups.

With the social listening tools available now, shouldn’t focus groups be a thing of the past? Not necessarily.

Back in the day…

It’s true that before social media, focus groups were one of few options for getting information directly from consumers – along with surveys, and of course, in-store encounters. And even though much of that data is now available on social media, it doesn’t mean in-person data gathering is entirely obsolete.

We polled our clients to get their opinions on the value of focus groups, and some of them felt strongly about this:

“Sorry, but focus groups are never going away. That individual ‘real person’ insight is just too valuable. And the science end of focus groups has improved in the last few years.” – Steven Chester

“I definitely do not think focus groups are dead. I think the way we go about conducting these groups should be changed, however. We have to become aware of why people say the things they say, and the reasons why they don’t say others.” – Meghan

But there’s another reason focus groups still matter. Not all demographics are represented on social media:

“We get much better insights from 45+ with traditional research. While it is true that the older generations are adopting more tech, we find the best results when using both social and traditional [tactics] to complement one another.” – Scott Reitzel

So focus groups are still considered a useful addition to a brand’s exploration of sentiment in the right circumstances.

The disadvantage is, data pulled from focus groups can be compromised by bias or survey errors. In fact, just knowing they’re part of a focus group can affect how consumers react when asked direct questions about products or strategy. And our clients realize this as well:

“We also need to be able to recognize influencing powers while the sessions go on. Competitive subjects might not say the whole truth to make themselves look better, and we need to be able to make sure that doesn’t happen.” – Meghan

“I agree with Scott’s point, however I believe that social listening allows for more organic consumer insights. There are a greater amount of controls and human factors that can muddy focus group data.” – Alex Ostrovsky

The 360-degree, real-time advantage

Because of that possible bias, social listening and monitoring tools can be more effective, as they gather information “in the wild.” You get the gist of how consumers are talking about your brand “behind its back,” so to speak. That’s a good thing.

Here’s more good news: social listening tools, in addition to being less expensive and more efficient in the long run, allow you to know (versus assume) what drives your audience in real time, minute to minute. That means you can respond in real-time as well, adjusting campaigns on the fly based on sentiment data as it flows in.

By comparison, a lot can change in the time it takes for results of a focus group to come back to you. And then there’s the fact that no matter how good the insights, focus groups still only represent a tiny fraction of your audience.

Go Bigger

Social listening, on the other hand, can give you a window into the minds and hearts of consumers everywhere. You’re no longer limited to just surveying consumers you can physically assemble or call. With tools offering language trackers in over forty languages (like ours), marketers can get a feel for what consumers all over the globe are saying about their lives, their emotions, and their experiences with brands.

Who needs a conference room and awkward questioning when you can scroll through Twitter and check how, for example, teenagers in Europe are using emojis to express themselves? This is something our clients recognize, and why they agree focus groups shouldn’t be an “instead of” option, but something used in conjunction with social media:

Social listening obviously gets you to things that people are talking about online and usually large volumes of it with very little ‘hard work’ and typically in less time. However there are still questions such as ‘Is it a certain type of person that engages in conversation online?’ ‘Do people really say the truth or what they want others to see?’ And then there are some private things that people just don’t talk about online. By using a combination of traditional research and social listening we can ask the questions we really want to and back it up with the findings and robustness of social listening if appropriate.” – Amelia Bainbridge

And exploring how consumers feel on social media, and learning their language (sarcasm, slanguage, emojis), builds trust between consumer and brand. That might make for more honesty when you ask those more personal questions. So, there are definitely advantages when social and focus groups are used together.

In the coming weeks we’ll look more deeply at how where we’ve been impacts our marketing approaches now, and where social listening fits into the greater picture against these traditional techniques. If there’s still room for focus groups, who knows what else we’ll find?

Check back for further posts about how marketing is evolving through social listening, or get in touch to put NetBase’s tools to work for your brand today.

Image from ITU Pictures


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