Last month, Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of the Scotsman and the
European, criticised the use of focus groups in a Daily Mail article
entitled ’Only cowards listen to focus groups’.
Neil cites an exercise ten years ago when, as editor of the Sunday
Times, he had begun to expand the paper into a ’multi-section monster’.
An unconvinced management organised a series of focus groups throughout
These produced complaints of too much paper and resentment at paying for
sections that ended up in the bin, unread.
Neil resolutely ignored the findings and subsequently watched the Sunday
Times’ profits soar, and competitors scramble to produce their own
multi-section Sunday editions.
So, how could the research be that wrong? The main difficulty with all
qualitative techniques is that the results are only as good as the
’There is an element of the black art about focus groups,’ says David
Skelsey, director of qualitative research at Taylor Nelson AGB Business
Services. ’The quality of the work relies on the individual that
conducts it.’ He points out the importance of good respondent
recruitment, but views the ability of the moderator as paramount.
Laura Marks, chair of the Association of Qualitative Research
Practitioners (AQRP), says: ’Focus groups are very easy to knock if you
discount the importance of analysis. Some people think that we just talk
to six housewives in Wigan and then do what they say.’
However, she reports that qualitative research has undergone a boom
period in the 1990s, and is now worth an estimated pounds 125 million.
In the same period, membership of AQRP has increased by roughly 10 per
cent each year, from 300 to 850. She attributes this growth to the
technique no longer being only the domain of advertising and brand
testing, but increasingly moving through the line.
Direct marketing, design and corporate identity professionals are
realising the value of getting under the skin of the customer and
understanding the perceptions that drive their behaviour.
So why is PR not on this list? Marks says: ’Cost, and a lot of people
have probably never really thought about it.’ However, she thinks that
PR staff would find focus groups valuable in identifying the perimeters
of people’s perceptions.
This is a view echoed by Jane Atkin, research and planning director of
strategic agency First and 42nd. She is surprised that focus groups are
not used more often in crisis situations. She says: ’For instance, where
buyer behaviour is being influenced by an issue, such as a potentially
dangerous ingredient, focus groups can help find the threshold at which
customers stop buying a product.’
However, all parties agree that the real value of focus groups is in
strategic planning. By talking to small groups of people in sufficient
depth, it is possible to develop hypotheses on why people behave as they
do. In PR terms, this enables analysis of what the messages are and
which messages are believable and from whom.
There is some discussion among research professionals about whether
focus groups can be used to examine sensitive issues, such as personal
Jane Gwilliam, managing director of Research International Qualitatif
UK, says that in her time she has moderated groups from colostomy bag
users to parents of probable drug-abusing children. She says: ’People
find they have a problem they can share in a supportive group. In a
one-to-one situation they hold back.’
Usually, depending on the research subject, focus groups consist of
same-sex respondents of similar socio-economic grouping, age and
It is especially important with women to identify their working status
and whether they have a family. On the whole, though, respondents are
not familiar with each other.
However, according to BBC head of corporate communications strategy,
Catherine Hastings, her company is currently conducting focus group
research with respondents who do know each other. ’We want to understand
the dynamics of the way people think, rather than looking at one
individual at one moment in time,’ she says.
The corporation is examining the impact of conversation and shared
culture and experiences to find ’cradles of opinion’. She says the
findings will impact throughout the whole organisation, from better
targeted PR to influencing programme scheduling.
There is a consensus of opinion that, to get the most out of focus group
research, you have to use a professional, someone independent who has no
stake in the results. Alison Clarke, Welbeck Golin/Harris chief
executive, says: ’If you are not trained in the skill, I believe you can
get a room of people to tell you whatever you want to hear.’
As her agency is based in London, she finds the tool useful for
identifying regional factors. This year, her company created a campaign
for a Scottish tobacco brand that was particularly popular with women at
the lower end of the socio-economic scale. She says: ’On the face of it
we positioned a campaign that was too high, but focus groups revealed
that these women were highly aspirational.’
Fishburn Hedges managing director John Williams thinks that focus groups
are greatly undervalued by the PR industry. He says that practitioners
are not disciplined enough and are too inclined to rely on anecdotal
The Abbott Mead Vickers Group is currently conducting discussion
group-led research on people’s attitudes to the new millennium. Findings
from across the group show that the public view it as an opportunity to
take stock. ’At the moment, people are regarding the event as a party’
’But increasingly they are looking to embrace deeper values.’
But how far should the views of a handful of respondents sway your own
beliefs? To what extent should you respond to the day-to-day concerns of
the customer? ’You ignore what the consumer says at your peril, but you
have to use your own judgement,’ says Williams.
Martin Ellis, deputy managing director and director of healthcare of
Cohn and Wolfe thinks that often PR peopleneed to take a step back and
ask themselves why they are conducting research. ’Most people use market
research like a drunk uses a lamp-post,’ he says, ’for support rather
than illumination.’ He also criticises marketers’ rigid approach to
research techniques, saying people get indoctrinated into when to use
He admits that it is usually easier to create media coverage from
quantitative research - facts and figures - but says: ’Focus groups can
give the human side.’
It seems that as marketing budget allocations become more
performance-indicator driven, focus groups will be a more widely-used
tool. After all, you have to show where you started from, in order to
demonstrate what has been achieved. As Mary Baker, senior planner at
Countrywide Porter Novelli, says: ’In this industry, we need to use
planning tools and research more often, to be seen as part of a
strategic marketing team.’
CASE STUDY: MEDIA 100 GETS PICTURE PERFECT REACTIONS
Media 100 is one of the leading players in the digital video editing
industry. Editing video footage on a computer, rather than the
old-fashioned tape-based method, is a very competitive and relatively
Last year the company undertook focus group-based research to revamp its
image and position itself as a world leader in the marketplace. Media
100 invited its retained PR agency, The Weber Group Europe, to sit in on
the discussions so that the results could be used in its communications
Research company Spikes Cavell organised a series of focus groups in the
UK, France and Germany. Groups of eight to ten multimedia and TV
professionals discussed their industry, whom they saw as key players in
the market and what was important in a video editing product. The
moderator then led the groups on to talk specifically about Media 100.
Messages relating to their products were flashed on to a screen to find
This proved to be highly revealing. In the past, Media 100 had stressed
their systems’ ease-of-use as a core value. But when they presented this
as a key message to the focus groups, most members dismissed its
They felt it was universally known that all computer-based editing
systems were easy to use and could be learnt in a day or less.
However, the groups showed greater interest in knowing that the system
provided them with broadcast quality pictures and that it was a
completely open system - meaning they could hook it up to other
The groups were then shown key words, such as ’powerful’, ’simple’ and
’flexible’. The words they preferred were ’open’, ’integrated’ and
’quality’, as they felt these described something the product was or
could do for them.
This exercise provided a valuable insight for the PR team observing.
’We were able to hear first hand from our target audience what they felt
was important,’ says Alex Scoltock, director of business development at
The Weber Group Europe. ’It was fascinating to hear them talk candidly
about the product and to get true reactions to some of the key messages
we were using in PR. It became clear that certain things like openness
and picture quality were the real hot buttons and others, like
simplicity and ease of use, were really of no interest.’
CASE STUDY: WADE SMITH’S SUCCESSFUL SOCIAL CLIMBING
Wade Smith is an independent designer label and sportswear store,
popular with Liverpool’s brand conscious youth.
To publicise the launch of its new concept sportswear store in the city
last year, the company brought in Countrywide Porter Novelli in
The new four-storey shop, called Outdoor Athletic, was designed to house
all the leading high-fashion sportswear brands in an exciting sports-led
Although Wade Smith knew that Liverpool shoppers liked to be seen with
one of its carrier bags, it had little data on why. So before developing
a programme of activity, Countrywide set about gaining a greater
understanding of its client’s customers.
The agency conducted four group discussions of eight Wade Smith shoppers
aged between 18 and 30, to explore their perceptions and test some
initial launch ideas. Its research also included the ROAR research.
Sponsored by the likes of Emap and Channel 4, ROAR examines UK youth
culture and looks at its effects on areas such as purchasing habits,
clothes, fashion and the media.
Countrywide then tailored a campaign to reflect its findings that
indicated a need to remain locally focused, appeal to the youth market’s
brand sophistication and capture the essence of Liverpool and its
In the week prior to the Outdoor Athletic launch, various fashion
features ran in the local media, including the Liverpool Daily Post.
Nationally, the Mirror ran a competition to win tickets to the launch
party and an opportunity to meet Steve MacManaman, the Liverpool and
In the new store the evening before the launch, three local young
atheletes were presented with Sports Aid Foundation awards, sponsored by
The shop’s central atrium houses a 46ft climbing wall and, on launch
day, TV weatherman Fred Talbot broadcast his forecast from this focal
point. Later that evening world-class climber John Dunne made his
inaugural ascent to officially open the store.
The launch party was attended by 1,000 people, including Liverpool
Guests mingled with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and
goalkeeper turned model David James. Local sports celebrities also
included Olympic Gold medal rowing duo Stephen Redgrave and Matthew
To end the night, guests were transported in double decker buses to
Cream, one of Liverpool’s top night-clubs.
Coverage of the launch appeared locally on Granada TV and nationally in
men’s style magazines GQ, FHM and Esquire. According to Wade Smith, four
months after opening, sales of sportswear were running at three times
the level of the previous year.
CASE STUDY: CUTTING THROUGH THE STEEL RECYCLING TRAP
Recent packaging legislation means that all parties in the chain - from
suppliers of raw materials to retailers - are obliged to reach
government set levels of packaging recovery. Since 1992, British Steel
Tinplate has played an active role in recycling, through its Steel Can
Recycling Information Bureau (SCRIB), run by Biss Lancaster.
By working closely with local council recycling officers, British Steel
wanted to establish itself as the authority on steel can recycling.
However, the company was aware that an increasing lack of concern among
consumers was affecting collection levels.
In October 1996, SCRIB commissioned environmental research agency
Quadrangle to undertake a qualitative research exercise to establish
how, in practice, consumers viewed different collection methods for
Quadrangle conducted six one-and-a-half hour discussion groups in Leeds,
Leicester and Basingstoke, where a choice of various collection schemes
were available to the public.
The study revealed that most people were more concerned about local,
rather than global environmental issues. Jan Davison, director at Biss
Lancaster, says: ’Messages saying that recycling will save the planet
were clearly not relevant.’ Key concerns were water pollution, air
quality and litter affecting the immediate environment.
It further showed that kerbside collection had the potential to succeed
over other methods, as it brought recycling into the home in a way that
other schemes did not.
The results were used to gain media coverage in trade titles Material
Recycling Week and Packaging Week. SCRIB also wanted to take the
research back to the local authority recycling officers to support them
in their work. So, it published the major findings in its newsletter,
’Recycling Bulletin’, which is produced every three months. Davison says
that the research helped drive a number of campaigns to both consumers
and local authorities. But instead of using the technique as a
straightforward diagnostic tool they were able to use the results
’We used the research not only in further developing our communications
strategy for British Steel, but as a communications tool in its own
right,’ she says.