MT Masterclass: Focus Groups

- What are they?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Gather round, everyone. Form a circle. Here's the low-down on the state-of-the-art way of finding out what people think. The idea is to take a group of people - they may be randomly selected, or chosen to represent a specific sub-set of society. You then ask them open questions to find out what they think, nudging but never steering the conversation. This technique can be used to develop an economic policy or to test new flavours of yoghurt - it's that flexible. But it's also that fragile. In the wrong hands, focus groups can produce wildly misleading results. Tony Blair's 'demon eyes', anyone? That brilliant campaign idea emerged from a Tory focus group in 1997.

- Where did they come from?

They appeared in the second world war. Sociologists were asked to find out how well the US military's propaganda films were going down with the general public. Through a process of trial and error, they found that questioning could uncover the hidden views and opinions of private citizens. Corporations got on board after the war, adapting the idea for commercial purposes. After Bill Clinton's stunning success in 1992, aided by his focus groups, politicians started to use them too.

- Where are they going?

Focus groups remain popular, despite their flaws. Politicians are now obsessed with them. Ever wondered why so many political slogans and policies sound the same? They've been focus-group-tested to death. But sometimes business and political leaders have to be brave enough to tell the world what they think, rather than trying everything out first. Even Tony Blair, a well-known focus-group addict, once told colleagues to go and 'refocus your focus groups' when they didn't come back with the answer he'd wanted or expected.

Fad quotient (out of 10): Dunno - what does the group think?

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