Focus groups are dead, thanks to social media

When you've got two billion active Facebook users a month ready and waiting to give you their opinion, the focus group doesn't stand a chance, argues Meltwater's David Hickey.

The traditional focus group is dead. What had once provided brands and businesses with a sample view of how the general public thinks has now been diminished to numbers and words on a page.

Take the Arnott’s pizza shapes fiasco of 2016 as a key example. According to Arnott’s Marketing Director, Rowena Ditzell, a focus group of around 11,000 people voted to get rid of the old, and bring in a new recipe and flavour.

Pizza Shapes: Don’t believe the hype (AKA the focus group)

A group of people, each with unique taste buds apparently representing the whole of Australia, helped overhaul a much beloved flavour that the majority of Australian consumers did not want to change in the first place.

We all know how that played out — following huge customer backlash across social media, Arnott’s brought back the original flavours due to “popular demand”.

This “popular demand” was not a key focus during the focus group tests, and highlights the importance for businesses and brands like Arnott’s to look beyond their own four walls and the traditional focus group, before making a huge strategic business change.

The days of the focus group are numbered

There is a wealth of real-time online data and conversations that are available every day, and businesses and brands alike must pay attention to the role it plays in strategic decision making, or risk falling behind their competitors.

The importance of real-time online data

Sensis’ 2017 Social Media Report revealed that Australian businesses are planning to spend less on social media over the next 12 months due to a lack of available time. This highlights a glaring gap in any business strategy in today’s day and age. Not only does social media provide real-time insights into consumer behaviour, it’s also become the front-line of defence to resolve customer feedback or issues before it becomes a problem.

Social media has become the go-to platform for the everyday Australian to express their thoughts — and this extends to brands and businesses too. We’re even beginning to see its reach and influence extend to politics.

Traditional polls and focus groups may provide an indication of what a select group of Australians think, but this does not represent the majority. One year ago, the Liberal Party thought they were a shoo-in with Malcolm Turnbull at the reins — after all, the polls said so.

Social conversations told a completely different story — Turnbull and Shorten were closer than the polls showed, and social media networks showed how the 2016 election would pan out, and specifically the issues that drove this result.

Publishers don’t pull all the strings anymore

Meanwhile, what most businesses and brands have yet to understand is that traditional publishers no longer pull all the strings when it comes to consumer news consumption habits, and its influence on the average Aussie is waning.

Reuters’ 2017 Digital News Report found that 46% of Australians use social media as their main source of news — and age is no longer a barrier to this type of access either due to Australia’s high level of smartphone penetration.

Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google are now the go-to news source for the majority of Aussies, and social media has become the main driver for change and news development over the past few years. Consumers who want to be heard turn to these platforms to voice their opinions, and in turn, are driving the news agenda.

So what does the future look like?

Today, thanks to social media, there is a wealth of real-time online data available at your fingertips with a sample size bigger than any focus group, poll or consumer survey. Research and feedback that would have once taken days, weeks, months or even years to conduct, is now easily accessible within a few clicks thanks to technology advances in online news and social media intelligence platforms.

Businesses and brands that wish to remain competitive must turn to the wealth of insights available beyond their own walls and adapt if they wish to stay ahead of the pack.

The traditional focus group is no longer relevant in today’s data driven society, and it’s time businesses and brands not only embrace this change but listen to and heed what is being said about them and their industries in real-time.

David Hickey is director of media monitoring company Meltwater ANZ.


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