Robert Merton: The Father of Focus Groups
You’ve probably seen a focus group depicted in popular culture: A TV show about marketers shows a room full of individuals testing out a product, or giving their opinions to a two-way mirror. But while focus groups make good dramatic fodder, their history is dramatic enough. In fact, the father of focus groups, sociologist Robert Merton, famously bemoaned that he wished he received royalties for the widespread adoption of what was perhaps his greatest contribution to social sciences.
Merton might have developed the technique in the 40s, but marketing still has need of the focus group today; even if the purposes and strategies have changed.
Focus groups actually began during and directly after World War II. And though market research essentially started 30 years earlier by Charles Coolidge Parlin, survey groups were not yet an idea. Merton, a famed sociologist from the US Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University, was originally commissioned to find out how Americans were affected by mass communication during the war. The Bureau was particularly interested in the overall impact of war propaganda. It was then that Merton utilized his “focused interview” technique to poll a number of Americans at the same time with carefully thought-out questions to offer qualitative data about the advertisements and films shown.
Merton’s techniques were used heavily through the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the ‘50s, the technique was credited for some of the greatest marketing wins of the time: Chrysler Plymouth, for example, struggled with sales of their convertible until focus groups indicated that it was wives–not husbands–choosing more sensible sedans over youthful exciting cars. Plymouth Chrysler adapted advertising to target women instead, increasing sales and giving the manufacturer a more family-friendly reputation.
Betty Crocker was another 1950s brand to make a business-altering decision after a focus group: When women indicated that only adding water and oil to dry cake mixes, it made the process feel less like “baking.” When Betty Crocker removed the powdered egg and changed the directions so at-home bakers added a fresh egg instead, sales increased.
It’s interesting to note that sociology–as both a science and a profession–benefited greatly from Merton’s contributions: In 1939, there were fewer than 1,000 sociologists in the United States. By the time Merton became President of the American Sociology Association in 1957, the group boasted 4,500 members.
Focus groups briefly fell out of fashion during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, but they were rediscovered by big-name brands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Bill Clinton famously used focus groups both to help him win the 1992 Presidential election and as research method before writing speeches during his term.
Focusing on the Future
Today, focus groups are sometimes pushed to the side in the wake of new market research methods. Big data mining and online surveys are extremely cost effective and yield massive data sets. But focus groups are still utilized as a method to gain insights that are nearly impossible to get from other market research methods. While a survey might tell you what a customer thinks about a brand, it can’t really tell you why he or she feels that way. And big data might help define a customer profile, but it can’t provide personal insights and opinions.
Focus groups might look a little different than they did in Merton’s time, but the winner of the 1994 U.S. National Medal of Science has certainly left his mark on modern market research. Online focus groups, video conferencing, and even using social media as a two-way mirror are reshaping the way brands think about communicating with their customers. Still, Merton’s technique remains the same: If you want the best insights, you go straight to the source.