Focus Groups R Funny. Like A Knife 2 The Gut.

Most people aren’t aware that focus groups were invented specifically to kill all creative work. In fact, legend tells of a bunch of suited accountants at the dawning of the age of focusgroupaquarius having a brainstorm: “People, we have to practice some CYA here. If we let those hippies in the ad agencies just go and do whatever they like, I’m not sure what will happen. It won’t be good, I can tell you that. They’ll slip some hidden meaning into the advertising, and next thing you know, our own commercial becomes a joke we don’t get! It’s like when the Beatles and Led Zeppelin did that whole backward masking thing. I say we get a bunch of ringers together to help balance the equation. We’ll call it a focus group.”

Okay, maybe that didn’t really happen – but maybe it did. Regardless, focus groups are real, and you’d better understand how to cope with them if you’re planning to produce any work. Think of all the time you spend trying to sell work through groups of people who are having a very hard time seeing past idea statements and sketches. And those are the professionals inside the business! Clients are tough too, but a good relationship can get you tentative approval. The focus group is a different story. Picture the coldest, most sterile environment you can possibly imagine. That’s right – “scariest environment imaginable,” as Owen Wilson assessed in Armageddon. The chamber of dread is normally located in some business park on the outskirts of any reasonably sized city, and contains beige walls festooned with mediocre still life paintings. Old copies of Sports Illustrated, Vogue and Field & Stream lie on top of waiting room tables to complete the feel of hopelessness. And interview rooms with gray laminate conference tables all feature mysterious, giant mirrored walls. This is the field of battle, and it is not your friend. Yes, there are some redeeming features. Most notably, there seem to be bottomless bowls of M&Ms and trail mix, and pizzas magically appear at about 7:30PM. But that’s the high point. In exchange, your work – your genius – is thrown up like a clay pigeon and used for target practice by people who aren’t sure what to aim for. Focus groups are made up of “availables.” That is, people who don’t have a lot of other things to do. Yes, the research companies swear that these people are your target, but that’s true mostly if your target is willing to drive to the place about 6:30 in the evening and wants a free meal voucher and a check. The typical makeup of the group falls like this:

Two people who actually are your target demo. This is a fortunate miracle. They want to know how to get your product right this minute. They’re secretly hoping for freebies, like Oprah gives away.

Three people who could never ever be your target demo. They are hungry and just want this to be over so they can go eat on the brand’s dime.

Two angry people. These souls have been wronged or overlooked by the world, and they’re ready to take it out on the work. Nobody listens to them or values their opinions, except for tonight. And it won’t be pretty.

One undiscovered marketing genius. This person has lots of opinions and is going to help you shape the brand, whether you like it or not. “Hey, behind the glass – do you guys have any open positions?”

The mousy one. He or she is just hoping to say something that someone values. Or maybe not. Depends. Scared. So very scared…

The dominant personality. This person actually has some leadership qualities, or else is extremely bold with his or her opinions. This field general causes many of the others in the room to revert to High School behavior and get the $%&! in line. People inexplicably become afraid to disagree with whatever the leader says, because they might get the “you’re stupid and wrong” look from the others, who are hoping to score points with the leader.

None of us are dumb as all of us

See no evil • The first overarching feature of a focus group is that it is a forced, unrealistic engagement with the work. Kind of like artificial insemination. Or someone who’s been tipped off to an impending mafia hit, and pretends not to know about it. We consume media and engage with brand messaging on our own terms, and we’re generally in a neutral to good mood while we’re doing that. We have a momentary interest in content, and it is actually possible that advertising or brand engagement represents interesting content. Inside a focus group, it’s all business, baby! Each part of the messaging is dissected like an unfortunate frog. Every word and image takes on a life or death meaning, and is subject to intense scrutiny. Participants stare at giant boards and pass haughty judgement upon sketches and animatics – work that still isn’t ready for prime time. Giant disadvantage: The work!

Speak no evil • The second overarching feature of a focus group is that the people in it believe you’ve brought them here to punch every possible hole into the work. They consider it a helpful duty, and they believe it means they’re giving you and the brand real value for the money. “How’s that for an opinion? I’ve saved you from so much embarrassment. And I hope that new word I came up with makes it into the television spot. Because people love new words! Maybe it even ends up in the dictionary in a few years. Can I get credit for that?

Hear no evil • The third overarching feature of a focus group isn’t about the group, but about client reaction to the group. Strangely, clients almost always cater to the dissenting opinion – but only if it’s negative. At the end of the day, most groups will land about 80/20 either in favor of or against the work. And often, there are at least three different conceptual directions being tested against one other. Despite the moderator’s constant assurance that “it’s not about proclaiming a winner and a loser concept,” it’s definitely about proclaiming a winner and a loser. The concept with the highest favorability will still have some negative attributes, and these are what the client will instantly focus on, as if those pieces can be addressed as independently as automotive parts that require replacement. Never mind if altering those things changes the meaning of the concept. The man on a horse becomes a dog. No problem, right? The dwarf has to go, because that might offend dwarf nation, and we can’t say those two words in that particular order. It means “your ancestors blow chunks” in Swahili.

Use the foooorrrce, Luke.

You can’t avoid focus groups. Clients need them, because they provide an important “disaster check.” If the advertising goes bad, at least a CMO is able to say, “The focus groups revealed nothing untoward. This is hardly my fault. The agency didn’t execute well. Let’s have them disposed of in an unpleasant manner.” Not only have focus groups become a staple pit stop for almost all work of any significance, the monster keeps growing. Next gen focus groups are “neuro based,” in which computers track the participants’ eye movements and then seek to understand exactly which things consumers want to see and interpret first. Right or wrong, I couldn’t say. But it’s scary like robot clowns, man. Scary like robot clowns! The age of “feels good and we think it will be awesome” is gone, my friends. Clients don’t care that you’re feeling the work. What matters is that some slightly annoyed, slightly opinionated theater manager from the ‘burbs feels it – or the work is goin’ down.

Tips. We’re just lucky we don’t work for them

If you must focus, at least understand and define exactly what you and your client want out of the exercise. Is it genuine learning that will be used to make the work better? Then there should be a discussion about the pros and cons of the focus group setting. The focus group should never tell the brand what to put out there. It’s a sounding board, not a decision-making mechanism. The best work in the world is usually somewhat polarizing, or at least appeals strongly to a particular set of people. Aiming for across-the-board happiness just creates mediocrity. No one will hate the work, but no one will love it.

• Make sure your client is bought into the work before you get to focus groups. This is about good agency management and partnership building. When the creative team actually does include both the agency team and the client-side marketing team, the work is a joint effort. It’s a thing everyone loves and wants to see survive. When stones are hurled against it, there will be a protective shield there to thwart all but the most vicious missiles.

• Look at the pros and cons of full group settings, triads (three peeps at a time) and “one-on-ones.” You can also “bury” the work being tested by including other work from competing brands, and not revealing which work is actually being tested. This will deflect the wrath of the participants and create a more neutral test. Regardless of which way you go, each of these techniques creates a different dynamic. Also, you need to understand if the client is looking for qualitative results (a quick litmus test) or full-blown quantitative testing (results that will be reliable as a sample). All these things matter, and leaving them to chance endangers the work.

• Stay very, very, very, very loose with the boards that will go to test. Did I say very? As creatives, our instinct is to try and create über cool experience boards for the focus groups. If it’s television concept we’re testing, we seek to build animatics that are as bloody close to the real thing as possible. “Let them feel the thunder of the concept and they will believe!” We put thumping music behind incredibly detailed visuals that are really close to animations by the time we’re done in the edit suite. Why, if there were real people in there, it would be finished! Wrong. So very, very, very wrong. You see, the closer you get to creating a finished product, the more the group participants will judge it alongside fully realized products. Suddenly, your little cartoon man isn’t seen as a placeholder, but as a guy with a weird haircut and shirt that looks like it belongs on a woman. Skies are never that blue, and that girl looks like a real witch. You aren’t gaining points, you’re losing them – all because you’ve gone too far. If you doubt what I’m saying here, just think about the reaction people had to Crispin, Porter + Bogusky’s ill-fated attempt to regenerate the late Orville Redenbacher. It creeped people out, because it was too close to real. Viewers are willing to bridge the reality gap for a cartoon figure, but when the fake becomes too close to the real thing it causes the mind to mistrust.  Create the loosest boards possible, because they allow the participant to build the scenario within his or her own mind. A loosely interpreted lumberjack takes the proper form inside the mind, right down to the correct beard and red plaid shirt. You get the points for the communication, and you bypass sticky discussion that will only detract from the stated objective: to figure out if this concept might play, should it be fully expressed.

• Make sure the work is presented in an extremely consistent manner, and work to fully express the intent of the work. Like the previous point, this is especially applicable to television and video pieces – which are becoming more and more relevant to the web. Staying loose with your boards means using sketches that tend toward the vague, with no music and no effects (yes, it’s counter-intuitive. Get over it), but it also widens the possibility of interpretation. You need to tell the participants that the protagonist is a lumberjack and not just a guy with a beard. You have to walk a fine line here, because you want to provide complete understanding of the spot without being accused of leading the opinion. You can say, “The spot opens onto a lumberjack in a Redwood forest. He is acting confused.” You can’t say, “The spot opens onto an incredible Redwood Forest. It’s mesmerizing! We feel concerned and fearful as we see a lumberjack acting confused!” See the difference? You tell the story, but you leave the feelings to the audience. Believe it or not, they’ll get it. By the way, this is a whole lot better than trying to create an animated lumberjack who is in the forest acting confused. The audience might easily interpret that as a hitchhiker who has to pee really badly. To make sure the perfectly interpreted story gets onto the table exactly the same way every single time, put someone on camera and have him or her narrate the boards. This person should be completely neutral, will not speak of “our favorite” or anything like it, and will ensure that the intended story takes center stage. It eliminates favoritism and wrong emphasis, and it sets the work up for success because it allows the focus group participants to help paint the picture.

• Stay neutral as the groups unfold. Basically, the concept you love most is the concept under the most suspicion. The focus group game is long – usually at least two groups each night, maybe across three different cities. Don’t worry so much about an interception in the first quarter, and don’t rush to defend. You’d be surprised at how often the concept all the mucky-mucks perceive as “the dog” winds up being the gem when all is said and done. Allow all the non-believers to make their own way to the realization of how horribly wrong they are about the work. Do not gloat. Tempting, but do not gloat.

Okay, that’s enough of that. For some real amusement, go to this link:

This is an actual focus group conducted in 2007, but the testing is centered around the famous Apple spot, “1984.” If you’ll remember, the “1984” spot was used  to introduce the very first Macintosh, and was an incredible piece of storytelling based on George Orwell’s novel of the same name. The spot is largely considered one of the best of all time, and pretty much vaulted the Super Bowl to prominence as the place to unveil great new brand spots. Pretty interesting how this group of people (who weren’t familiar with the piece of advertising now more than 20 years old) interpreted the boards.

Here’s the actual spot. Still crazy good after all these years:

Um, here’s info about the George Orwell novel. Not that you needed it, right?

Okay, okay. Here’s the horrific dead Redenbacher spot. I’m scared just looking at it:

And here’s Owen Wilson in Armageddon:


  1. EmmyTheBeth says:

    Interesting, an account friend of mine misses focus groups. She said they were fun.

    • admin says:

      I take that to mean focus groups have disappeared from her life – interesting. Have they been replaced with the online surveys like Survey Monkey? Or is it Sock Monkey? I forget.

  2. Nicki Minaj says:

    Good points…I would note that as someone who really doesn’t comment to blogs much (in fact, this may be my first post), I don’t think the term “lurker” is very becoming to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault really , but perhaps the blogosphere could come up with a better, non-creepy name for the 90% of us that enjoy reading the content .

    • admin says:

      Wait – help me with this. Is that a term I used in the article? I don’t remember it (and BTW, I agree. I like to drop in on blogs and don’t feel I’m lurking at all). That’s something I’d like to correct if you can help me to understand the source. Thanks for being here – Alan

  3. divorce says:

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  6. Jan Conaway says:

    Though this subject can be incredibly touchy for most folks, my opinion is that there has to be a center or typical ground that we all can uncover. I do enjoy that youve added relevant and intelligent commentary right right here however. Thank you!


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