Focus Groups And Music: The Art Of Predicting

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Street knowledge, commonplace or plain truth – everybody says focus groups do not work. This common knowledge is almost part of the pop culture, something you hear here and there. As a regular person who is not in the advertising field, I was absolutely sure that focus groups were a thing of the past. I really believed companies and advertising agencies were using fancier methods. Little did I know that these are still one of the main sources of information companies and advertising agencies have.

No matter how much the ‘mad men’ may love groups, The Simpsons make a strong case against them. If I remember correctly, there are at least two episodes were Matt Groening makes fun of such resource. Here we see the president of a broadcasting company lose his pacience and give himself away behind the one-way mirror.

focus groups

A little history.

Social scientist Robert Merton created focus groups, and used them throughout World War IIĀ  to study the scope and effectiveness of propaganda. As we can see this is not only a marketing tool, although most people believe that. Focus groups are a research technique, widely used in social sciences. The very Merton lived enough to see his method being carried out for the wrong reasons or with the wrong processes, such were his words.

Focus groups are a means, not an end.

They were intended to be a source of ideas, a brainstorming of sorts. Remember that Mad Men episode, the one where Peggy took part in the Avon lipstick consumer research? The answers she gave to the executive’s questions granted her a promotion, from secretary to [first lady] copywriter.

Just an observation. Mad Men, The Simpsons – see how tightly interwoven is the concept of focus groups in pop culture?

The industry fell in love with the method, overestimating the information they actually produce. It may tell you how a specific group of people thinks or feels, if something needs to be improved, maybe even how to do so. But this information is very vague, and cannot be accurately applied to massive groups. No matter how representative is the sample, there are always generalization problems.

Why are they still being used, then?

Call it tradition, force of habit, lack of a better idea. Also, focus groups are relatively cheap to carry out. Also, who would not want to take part in one? Survey Agencies post ads asking for focus groups participants, and people sign up like crazy. Okay, finding willing individuals is easy – select them is another thing entirely. And this is where the problem lies, in this very stage of the process. Most advertising agencies outsource the focus groups’ logistics to a third party, neglecting the key part of the affair.

A couple months ago, one of my friends told me she was offering herself to take part in focus groups. “Just to make a little money on the side”, she said. She put her name down for every ad she came across, and she was summoned at least once a week. I was curious, so I took a look at these ads. The requirements were diverse, and if my friend happened to not meet them…she would make her way in somehow. Did the ad ask for a mother of two? She would ‘borrow’ her nephews and take them to the interview. Was the consulting firm ask for consumers of a certain product? She would borrow a receipt for such product from someone else. Do not judge her, everybody does the same thing.

Bottom line: you can imagine how ‘accurate’ these researches are (at least in my country).

Predicting the next hit.

The music industry goes to great lengths when it comes to predict consumer behavior. There are very respectable consulting agencies that provide surveying services to record labels and other industry players.

As a psychologist, I am forced to make a crucial distinction between ethical and unethical research methods. When properly carried out, focus groups are not only a valid but also ‘morally’ correct (for lack of a better word). But there are other ways, non sancto methods if you may. The music industry might be getting information about your habits without you consenting to participate in such affair. Every ethical investigation requires the subjects to sign an informed consent – otherwise, the results are considered illegally obtained and therefore invalid.

Unethical researches are everywhere, especially when it comes to Internet. A free music streaming service collects tons of information about your preferences, searches and interests but…do you remember having consented to sharing such information with the provider of the service? What you have there is an unethical marketing research.

When you ‘heart’ a song you are playing via iTunes, what do you think will happen? There are a lot of players willing to pay Apple big money for that information. They may argue that this is public information, which is true. But the user, namely you, never agreed to that particular use of the information.

It is absolutely legit for the music industry to try to understand and predict the listener behavior. The results may be more accurate if the research methods are, indeed, legit.

In a nutshell, focus groups can throw useful information that should be read in careful ways. However imperfect or insufficient, this method will always be more legitimate than information stealing. The industry also needs to watch more closely the way these studies are being carried out, especially when the job is outsourced.

And the Industry must always remember that one thing is to research, and to spy is another. The future cannot be predicted, although it can be understood with the cooperation and awareness of the consumer. This is the challenge that should be faced.

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