RESEARCH & EVALUATION: Research back in focus - Ben Bold looks at the legacy of New Labour's love affair with focus groups

New Labour's election victory in 1997 held many lessons for marketers.

One of its key strategies, borrowed from marketing, involved the use of focus groups to test public sentiment and drive its key messages and the tone of the campaign. While the use of this technique by New Labour has been described as gratuitous by critics, its value has never been in dispute - when it is used appropriately.

Given its value, the reluctance of PR practitioners to use the focus group format seems surprising but the recent bad press has been, in part, to blame for a decline in interest from PR researchers.

'The way in which focus groups have been used and fed back to the media has discredited them,' says Countrywide Porter Novelli director of research Mary Baker.

Pollsters tend to agree with this view adding that although focus groups are out of fashion, in PR they are valuable. MORI director of corporate and consumer research Peter Hutton says: 'If they are used right then they can be enormously powerful'.

Focus groups essentially attempt to examine the way people think about, and the emotional relationship they have with an issue, organisation or product and are supported with further research. They, therefore, have a definite use in aiding long-term PR strategy as well as short-term campaigns.

'Qualitative research generally, and focus groups in particular, are very important in communications work,' says founder of market research company Response Consulting, Ruth McNeil. Many believe that their use can extend beyond communications and examine how a business should be run. '(Focus groups) can enable you to probe deeply into where your stakeholders are coming from, how they relate to your business and the issues related to your business,' Hutton says. For this reason their core value lies in their long-term strategic use.

The ideal focus group involves around seven to eight participants. Any less, and the exercise lacks the necessary range of opinion and any more, there is the risk that a couple of individuals will dominate the proceedings. The research company writes recruitment guidelines based on who they believe are the relevant stakeholders.

A recruitment agency is used to source participants from a range of, or specific, demographic or geographical areas.

The role of the focus group can be broken down into three components.

To establish: what the stakeholder thinks; how they access information about a particular company, organisation or product; and to find out the ideal manner for contacting stakeholders. Once the focus group has been conducted and the data analysed then quantitative research is necessary to support or reassess the findings. This may involve the use of opinion polls to ask stakeholders questions based on the new findings of the focus group.

The use of focus groups, as with any form of market research, is open to misuse - for example, when surveys are used as a means of self-justification.

However, as the PR industry realises their value and their limitations, focus groups will continue to be a valuable tool in formulating strategy.

And the more clients realise the value of the integration of all communications disciplines, the more cost-effective focus groups will become. The PR industry does have, however, some way to go to realise the potential of this format.

Mike Taylor, associate director at research company Millward Brown Precis, says there is still a tendency in the PR industry to view research as an add-on: 'Too often in PR, any kind of research or evaluation is seen as an optional extra but the returns in effectiveness of refining a concept by even a small degree can make the cost efficiencies of researching your PR strategy extremely beneficial.'

So, ideally, what is the role of the focus group in PR research? Manning Selvage & Lee sister company i-to-i research founder and MD Claire Spencer reckons the PR industry has misunderstood their benefit. 'There is a trend in PR to use them to create stories, rather than in a proper planning capacity.' And this concentration on story creation puts the emphasis on stats generation rather than qualitative findings.

Instead Spencer argues that the PR industry should be running focus groups to help arrive at a point to know what should drive the communications content. Beyond that point, focus groups can drive deeper into the established picture, and with the support of quantitative research can help develop a strategy. Baker cites an example of a campaign CPN conducted for a financial services company. The agency used a focus group, with the client sat watching the proceedings from behind one-way glass. The client assumed its target market would understand the type of language it used in its communications.

It wasn't until the client watched the focus group that he realised the vocabulary of its communications needed rethinking.

'Focus groups are best utilised early on in the strategy research process. In a well moderated group, respondents can feed off each other's ideas and opinions, and become more creative and responsive to concepts presented to them,' says Taylor.

'The best way they can be used is when they are set up to examine the environment in which the attendees find the brand and the factors that contribute to the brand,' says Nigel O'Connor, Institute of Public Relations head of policy. The brand, for these purposes, includes anything from a consumer brand to a corporate brand. 'Focus groups can add valuable qualitative information to pre-test messages or help evaluate the effectiveness of, and if necessary adjust, ongoing PR campaigns,' he adds.

Taylor says: 'Once you have selected and refined your PR strategy and delivery channels, the next stage is to evaluate the actual delivery of the strategy, using a measurement system that assesses the level of impact generated, and the key messages delivered.'

Another attractive feature of this early stage research is its low cost.

Clients, however, still need convincing that focus groups should be seen as part of an overall strategy. The more that PR integrates with other communication disciplines and the more that research is used across a wider agenda then the more cost-effective it becomes.

As Edelman London deputy MD Stuart Smith says: 'Research and evaluation are crucial to well designed communications programmes. Focus groups have a place, and will always have a place, in the research mix. But, more importantly, clients need to be doing more research and PR agencies have a primary responsibility to encourage that.'

Not suprisingly, the question as to whether PR people themselves have the necessary expertise to conduct focus groups was met with a unanimous 'no' from market researchers. They argue that the skills needed to properly plan, implement and analyse research require a great deal of training and experience if they are to be effective. Baker agrees: 'The skill of the moderator is to uncover what people say and what they think.' The two can often be different.

There is no doubt that an independent stance is a necessity. Objectivity, or as close as you can get to it, is a prerequisite for a successful focus group. If the client wishes to attend a focus group then it must remain outside of the group, typically viewing the proceedings from behind one-way glass. In abiding by the rules of the Market Research Society, the client is not allowed to intervene.

MORI research director Stewart Lewis believes it is beneficial for the client to be present as, unlike reading a transcript of a session, the client can watch the attendees' body language and read their tone of voice.

The proper use of focus groups can undoubtedly provide great value to a campaign or long-term communications strategy. But to unlock that value the PR industry needs to review its beliefs about the role of research within PR as a whole.

CASE STUDY - ASHRIDGE BUSINESS SCHOOL

Ashridge is a UK-based business school that offers a range of business education, including MBAs. Its competitors include the London Business School and Henley. It has a turnover of approximately £25m.

Last September, the school conducted a focus group looking at its communications.

Ashridge, its PR agency Manning Selvage & Lee, and research company Leapfrog devised and implemented the exercise to establish how effective Ashridge's communications were and to implement changes accordingly.

Ashridge decided that its network of academics, who have a knowledge of the school itself as well as a broader perspective, would be the best people to air their views on the school's communications issues. Ashridge contacted its alumni members, requesting volunteers to participate. From the huge response eight participants were chosen.

Firstly, the points that needed covering in the discussion were established and a framework was drawn up. Leapfrog advised on this and moderated the focus group. The two key areas of discussion were how the school communicated its 'open programme' portfolio to clients, how it could best do so, and the effectiveness of its communications channels.

The key points articulated in the discussion were: that Ashridge was viewed very much as a commercial operation with an innovative approach; that its communications were very UK-focused; that in terms of communication with the media, the school was punching below its weight. It was also felt that the school had to become more market-focused, that it should look at the issues that business and organisations currently face and develop relevant programmes.

Ashridge followed up the exercise with measures that addressed those points raised. It established sales teams overseas (and plans further expansion). It reviewed its media relations. With MS&L, it is looking at topical management issues that it can mould programmes around and subsequently promote to the media.

As a result of the interaction with its alumni, an alumni development manager was appointed.

Further focus groups and alumni events are planned for the future.

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