Marketing insights that spark conversions

September 11, 2017 // 1:36 PM

How AI Is Making Focus Groups Easier, Cheaper, & Faster Than Ever Before

Written by Matt Allegretti
What images come to mind when you think of a focus group?

You probably see a moderator with a clipboard asking questions to a room full of people right?

It’s safe to say that most people know what a focus group is, and have maybe even participated in one at some point. Focus groups have been around for decades, and are a popular way that businesses have gathered valuable insight into how target audiences feel about a product, brand, or advertising campaign. In fact, 1.1 billion dollars are devoted to focus groups every year.

Businesses clearly value customer feedback, but many have taken a step back to evaluate the quality of feedback they’re receiving from focus groups and to answer the question: are focus groups really worth all the time, money, and manpower needed to facilitate them?

For many companies, the answer is no - at least when it comes to traditional, in-person focus groups.

But the rise of online video, facial analysis technology, AI, and neuromarketing has already started to transform how focus groups will be conducted in the future. New technology is quickly making them easier, cheaper, faster, and more accurate than ever before.

How Brands Discovered The Power Of Focus Groups

As mentioned earlier, businesses have been conducting focus groups for decades. The reason for this is simple: customer feedback can bring tremendous value to product and advertising campaign development, so it’s a little surprising that corporate America didn’t discover the power of customer insight first - it was actually a sociologist.

Focus groups were first used during World War II by Robert Merton, a sociologist, as a way to research the effectiveness of propaganda. Merton researched the effects of radio broadcasts, Army training, and moral videos on the general public. The term “focus group” however, was coined by the marketing genius Ernest Dichter who inspired some of the most successful advertising campaigns of the mid-20th century and worked with brands such as: Ivory, General Mills, Procter and Gamble, Betty Crocker, and Standard Oil.

One of Dichter’s most memorable campaigns was developed in 1958, when he worked with Mattel to launch a new doll line for girls. After running several focus group sessions, he came to the conclusion that although mothers were uncomfortable with allowing their daughters to have a naked doll, they would accept it because the doll could be a role model and turn her into “a poised little lady.” This led to the creation of one of the most popular children’s toys of all time: Barbie.

Dichter’s focus groups produced highly successful campaigns because they were among the first to be developed around customer feedback. Dichter’s psychoanalytic background allowed him to understand that people make the vast majority of their purchasing decisions subconsciously - or emotionally - rather than logically. Thus, Dichter was able to tap into consumers’ unconscious minds while running his studies and as a result achieve more accurate insights into their purchasing decisions. He once notably said: “You would be amazed to find how we mislead ourselves when we attempt to explain why we behave the way we do.”

Dichter’s focus groups revolutionized the advertising industry, leading other psychologists to offer similar services to American companies. Gradually, it became commonplace for companies to conduct focus groups internally or hiring outside specialists to facilitate them on behalf of a company. By the late 1980s, focus groups had become a standard business development practice.

Today, in-person focus groups are most often used for market research, product development, brand development, advertising and campaign testing, internal staff research, and political and policy research. They usually consist of a small group of people who participate in a guided discussion led by a moderator.


Problems With Traditional Focus Groups

Although traditional, in-person focus groups can produce helpful customer feedback, there are some big problems with this model that companies have struggled with for decades. For instance
  • They’re expensive: The average cost of focus groups range from $4,000-12,000. Companies often pay for everything from the participants, to the moderator, food, travel, venue, accommodations, etc...

  • They take up a lot of time: Focus groups can take weeks or even months to coordinate; from finding a venue, participates, travel accommodations, to preparing presentations, questionnaires, discussion content - organizing a focus group is a lot of work. Not to mention all the manpower needed to facilitate one.

  • They can produce insufficient results: Studies have shown that human responses can be easily influenced by other people. Thus, focus group participants might feel intimidated to honestly answer questions in front of other people, or they might be swayed by the rest of the group, or even the moderator- resulting in insufficient feedback. 
  • Their success often hinges on the moderator: Moderators hold almost all of the control over the quality of feedback they receive. They have the challenging task of keeping the discussions on track, obtaining honest feedback, and appearing unbiased throughout the course of the discussion. This can be difficult because as alluded to above, moderators can easily influence group members' input by their tone and body language.

Focus Groups Meet AI

As a result of the problems that arise with traditional focus groups, many businesses today shy away from using them. However, companies still want customer feedback because it provides valuable insight - they just don’t want to spend a lot of time and money to get it.  

As new technology continues to emerge, they won’t have to.

Ever since Dichter’s focus groups became a common business practice, advertisers have been well aware of the power emotions have over our purchasing decisions. Innovative facial recognition and AI technology now allows us to capture human emotions and reactions without the need for an in-person focus group.

With new emotion tracking technology, researchers can identify exactly how people react to a video advertisement in real time, moment by moment. Furthermore, recent Neuroscience studies have found that emotional reactions more accurately indicate whether or not a participant enjoys a commercial than his/her own opinion.

Companies have already started taking advantage of this new technology, opting to test their video campaigns in this manner rather than relying on traditional surveys and focus group sessions for customer feedback. The results from neuroscience-based ad tests help marketing teams optimize ad campaigns with more emotionally-driven content that increases purchase intent and drives sales.

Leading research firm Nielsen, has been conducting emotional tests on ad campaigns for years, and has found ads that effectively connect with viewers’ emotions result in higher sales. A recent Nielsen study, for example, revealed that ads with above-average scores on a neuroscience-based ad test generated a 23% lift in sales.

It may sound like these type of tests can only be done in high-tech laboratories by big research companies - but that’s not the case.

New innovative tech companies, like Dumbstruck Inc., have built powerful web-based platforms that allow emotional ad testing to be done remotely. From the comfort of their own homes, participants can simply fire up their webcams and watch a video while Dumbstruck’s facial recognition and AI technology captures their emotional response for every second of the video. The data is immediately transferred to the platform where users can see the results in real time, and are provided specific insights derived from the data analysis. Hence, web-based video testing eliminates the need to bring a group of people together in one location in order to get feedback.

In addition to emotion tracking, Dumbstruck also allows companies to create online survey questions that participants can take after watching a video, allowing marketers to receive even further insight and feedback from their audience.

The benefits of obtaining customer feedback through web-based video testing over traditional focus groups are numerous. The most significant include:


  • More cost effective: No need to pay for a moderator, travel, food, a facility, and accommodations. Participants can watch a video when they want, where they want.
  • Quick and easy to launch: Traditional focus groups can take weeks to coordinate, but setting up a video test only takes minutes - saving you a lot of time and unnecessary work.
  • Immediate feedback: Results and feedback start to come in almost immediately. It typically takes only one to two days for participants to complete - depending on the number of participants there are.
  • More accurate responses: Since participants are reacting to videos in the privacy of their own homes, they are more likely to provide an honest response to the video and survey questions. They are not influenced by the moderator or the reactions of other people. Studies have shown that this can be a problem in traditional focus groups.
  • Larger pool of participants: Dumbstruck in particular allows users to choose participants from a pool of almost a million people with a wide range of ages, ethnicities, and locations from around the world, making it easy to select target demographics.  

Stop wasting money on in-person focus groups!

It’s indisputable among advertisers that customer feedback is valuable, but what’s changing now is how businesses get it. With recent advances in AI, facial recognition, and emotion tracking technology, it seems inevitable that more and more companies will abandon traditional focus group models - which waste time, money, and resources - in favor of new web-based methods that are easy, quick, and affordable. Furthermore, emotion tracking software has been shown to more accurately measure how a person feels about video content than what they would say in person.

So before running your next ad campaign, why not test it with your audience first? The tools are right in your web browser.



Topics: AI, video testing, focus groups