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Digital campaigns, an alternative to focus groups?

Linden Shearar of Amorphous New Media argues the benefits of a digital campaign versus a focus group and urges advertisers to sit up and take note. It may save them a lot of money.
Linden Shearar
Have you ever wondered what the correct way is to watch a television commercial? For starters, it's not while you're channel hopping, texting or fixing yourself a snack.

You might have thought that advertisers use things like neuroscience and psychology to catch your attention, but they don't. Instead, they rely on something called a 'focus group', which is how they make sure that what they say and how they say it is spot on. Why? So that they get you to pay attention and ultimately buy the product. Therefore, it stands to reason that the correct way to watch a TV commercial is the way it is watched in a focus group.

Firstly, it is important that you are watching the commercial in the company of other people, preferably complete strangers. You should all be eating a variety of unhealthy finger foods and drinking calorie-ridden soft drinks. There should be a two-way mirror on one of the walls behind which a whole bunch of specialists are observing you and there should be a microphone somewhere recording everything that you say.

It's important that you discuss the commercial with the other people after you've watched it. Don't go back to the program you were actually viewing because that would be wrong. No, you must dwell on what you've just seen, preferably under the guidance of a facilitator who will direct the conversation to certain key aspects: Do you remember the product name? Did you like the background music? Was the value proposition clear and compelling? How did you feel about the lead character? Do you remember what the voice-over specifically said at the end? And so forth.

Don't stress too much if you feel that this conversation is being dominated by some bombastic loudmouth; your point of view being swamped out or actually influenced by what he has to say. It's ok. It happens. In fact, it's commonplace. As long as there is a point of view in the room, you're watching the ad properly.

Ok, enough with the sarcasm. I know we all know about the inadequacies of focus groups, but I just couldn't help myself. Because, to be honest, when I think about them this way, they aren't just inadequate, they are downright ridiculous. Since I've been in this industry, I've seen marketers and advertisers deferto these forums in the absence of anything else. And, to some extent, it is understandable. Campaigns run into the millions of Rands and you want some indication that you're not flushing your budgets down the toilet.

But here's the thing: there is something else, another way. There is digital campaigning. You can run relatively cheap campaigns online, presenting your value proposition in a variety of different ways and then watching how the world responds: which executions get clicked on, which are flat-out ignored. And you will know that this response is coming from people who aren't being influenced by a facilitator or a loudmouth or the nagging sense that they are being observed, but who are simply making their own choices. Over time, with careful campaign management, you will build a fairly confident picture of what your market wants to hear and how they want to hear it. And, as a bonus, while you are learning these things, you score some returns.

The natural order that I have observed is as follows: a (single) big idea for a campaign is developed by an above-the-line agency, discussed with clients (sometimes verified in focus groups) and then handed off to other agencies for implementation in other channels. This misses a trick and probably explains why so many campaigns underperform.

My alternative proposal is this: have digital lead your campaigning process - test multiple ideas, let the market tell you what works and what doesn't and then take the most promising concept to the other agencies for implementation. I know it isn't perfect, but it is logically a hell of a lot better than the alternative. Why not give it a try? It actually won't cost you too much and may land up saving you a lot. It could even make you a lot.

Amorphous' press office

Amorphous is a new media agency focusing on digital solutions, these include, strategy, marketing, user experience, creative and technology which are spread across different platforms such as web, email, mobile, online advertising and variations of these.