Tag Archives: focus groups

The Fascinating Founders Of Market Research


In a past article, I created the quote: “Those who do not learn from market research history are doomed to average data.” As far as I know, the quote hasn’t made it to any social media memes or posters with cats. I still stand by it. I’ve advocated the importance of retaining some understanding (and context) of the history of market research—on this blog and in such sites like The American Marketing Association. As with the pioneering concepts of Edward Bernays, many market research ideas can actually go full circle and become relevant today.

In this article, I present a summary of all the principal Founders of Market Research. I drew from various resources, but mainly from Paul A. Scipione’s A Nation of Numbers: The Development of Marketing Research in America. It’s an excellent book we included in our article The Best Books On Market Research.
Get ready to journey on a Tardis of market research chronicles (or perhaps modified DeLorean if you have more American time travel sensibilities). I believe you will find that these fathers of market research to be far more interesting (and even controversial) than you could have imagined.


George H. Gallup (1901-1984)



Most Americans are aware of the Gallup Poll, but few know about the individual it’s named after, George Gallup, who also happens to be the chief developer of public polling.

Gallup began as a journalism and advertising academic, teaching in such hallowed institutions as Columbia University and Northwestern University. His breakthrough happened in 1932 when he helped his mother-in-law, Ola Babcock Miller, during her election for the position of Iowa for Secretary of State. No Democrat had won statewide office in Iowa since the Civil War. Gallup’s polling of the counties gifted Miller the insights to understand voters. The only question on his questionnaire was, “What are you most worried about?” Miller calibrated her political message depending on the majority answer of each county. This resulted in a landslide victory.

The Iowa election not only propelled Gallup to nationwide celebrity, it eventually led him to found the American Institute of Public Opinion, which soon became a perennial bellwether for national politics. His one black eye would be his calling for Thomas Dewey against Harry Truman in 1948 (Gallup blamed the blunder on closing polling too early).

Market Research Legacy: Gallup was a champion for dry quantitative research, claiming one should focus on the “what” instead of the “why” in research. He held little patience for research that delved into the subconscious motivations of respondents, as well as focus groups in general.

Quote: “I could prove God statistically.”


Arthur C. Nielsen (1898-1980)



Nielsen is also a household name like Gallup. His story is one of how adversity can create opportunity. During the Great Depression, Nielsen’s firm ACN (which tested and measured technologies) struggled like most businesses.

Struggling for income, Nielsen came up with two innovations in 1936: the Nielsen Drug Index (NDI) in 1933 and the Nielsen Radio Index (NRI). These innovations were based on his idea that he could develop a nationwide probability sample of drugstores. His company began auditing key brand statistics like purchase invoices and shelf stock, and then plugging those numbers into a proprietary equation. This analysis produced sales and mark share statistics for competitive brands of the over-the-counter drugs.

Large companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble soon began paying Nielsen for his insights. This gave birth to the power of price reductions, sales, and promotions within stores. In time, ACN became the first market research firm to exceed a billion dollars in annual revenue. Later on, of course, Nielsen entered the television market to become truly immortal.

Nielsen always claimed he “accidentally” entered market research.

Market Research Legacy: Beyond his sample statistic innovations, in 1948 Nielsen’s company built the first ever general-purpose computer, the Univac, for $150,000. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would later work on cheaper products, thankfully. Moreover, Nielsen Ratings have been the standard-bearer for marketing television for decades.

Quote: “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness.”


Alfred Politz (1902-1982)



In this pantheon, Alfred Politz balances the dry countenance of Nielsen. His life is closer to that of a movie star or international spy.

Politz worked as a marketer in Germany in the 1930s, even though he was a physicist by education. He fled his homeland to the US, aided by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley. The reason was that Politz feared that Hitler would force him to work on weapons of mass destruction.

Once in America, Politz worked in advertising, claiming he wanted a job where he could make the most money for the least amount of thinking. His fiery personality led him through many companies, producing great marketing work but also great enemies. Eventually, he founded Alfred Politz Research, Inc., which would become a chief market research firm. His company dominated the development and implementation of new quantitative methods for advertising research for nearly 30 years. During his meteoric rise, he lived the life of a rock star: flamboyant and hedonistic (and often entertaining to the press).

Market Research Legacy: His advocacy of random probability sampling shaped market research. His influential, high-visibility studies for Life Magazine became legendary in marketing circles.

Quote: “Repeat exposure without repeat payment.”


Ernest Dichter (1911-1991)



We provided an exposition in Freud and The Intriguing History of the Focus Group. Like Politz, Dichter was a complex and fascinating character, a press celebrity who even appeared on The Tonight Show. Furthermore, the Viennese Dichter also came to America to avoid Hitler, but the reason was that he was a Jew.

Ironically, Dichter and Politz were lifelong enemies, their antagonism a symbol of the yin and yang tension of qualitative and quantitative polarities.

Certainly, Dichter was a trailblazer of qualitative research, as well as a Freudian who believed in manipulating the “beast mode” forces bubbling in the human subconscious. From phallic-looking cigarettes to the legendary tiger in the gas tank, Dichter played with symbols and archetypes to manipulate consumers.

Market Research Legacy: Developed and perfected the focus group (and coined the term), permanently injected psychology into market research.

Quote: “What people actually spend their money on in most instances are psychological differences, illusory brand images.”


Charles Coolidge Parlin (1872 – 1942)


Like Nielsen, you could say Charles Parlin accidentally entered market research.

A Wisconsin schoolteacher with no marketing experience, Parlin was hired by Curtis Publishing Company in 1911. He didn’t even receive a job title. His job was to provide better advertising insights on an agriculture magazine the company had recently bought.

Parlin created market research out of thin air, from data gathering to best practices, interviewing subjects and breaking down the findings in sober numbers. Almost overnight after his groundbreaking work for Curtis Publishing, logical rule replaced intuition in the marketing world. He eventually started his own firm, National Analyst, and further pioneered market research as we know it.

Market Research Legacy: Founded the first market research company in history, parlayed one set of simple insights into an entire set of standards that still govern market research and general marketing to this day.

Quote: “Advertising, properly applied, reduces selling cost. The consumer pays the expense of advertising which therefore justifies itself.”





If there is a main takeaway to the lives of these individuals, it would be that market research is often as accidental as it is analytical. It’s a cauldron of invention as it is a laboratory of data, producing a $24 billion a year industry that employs more than 150,000 workers nationwide. Also, market research doesn’t have to by dry and rigid, or at least perceived as such, and that often common sense rules the day for individuals trying to make sense of market forces.

Most of us probably won’t appear on The Tonight Show or have to worry about fleeing despotic governments. Nevertheless, we can have a good time and change the flow of this nation of numbers.


A version of this article appears in Quirks


15 Free Market Research Tools & Resources When You Need A Hack

Lady holding umbrella underneath falling numbers


Market research is a discipline of precision. It’s also an industry that—if it could—would melt into the essence of numbers themselves. There are occasions, however, when a researcher might need some ad hoc statistics or data to support a project during nascent stages. Also, with market research budgets tightening across the business world, sometimes a researcher just needs a hack to gain a sense of perspective.

We’ve compiled a list of some free market research tools for the mentioned occasions. These can work from business development to brand analysis.


Economic & Financial Data



For mining the business and consumer landscapes, certainly start with FreeLunch. Moody Analytics provides the data, centered on capital markets and risk management. You can acquire data on an astonishing 180 countries that represent roughly 93% of the global GDP.

For sources with a little lighter scope, we recommend Quartz’s Atlas. This resource doesn’t exactly extracts profound insights, but it does provide sensible data in the form of charts and graphs you can embed in your documents or presentations.


American Demographics Sample



Our own government’s The American FactFinder allows you to search for any chunk of data related to any geographic location in the country. Gain access to documents such as demographic qualities, population estimates, housing valuations and business statistics. All data you find can be segmented further into age, sex, race, location and more. The US Census Bureau manages the search engine, which is a huge asset both for both exploratory and later-phase market research.

To understand a specific area’s lifestyle habits, you can then take advantage of Nielsen’s MyBestSegments. This platform offers tools to discover which areas would be most receptive to a brand campaign or launch—as well as nearby competitors and shifting shopping trends.


Brand Competition



With Upfront Analytics, you simply provide your company information and two competitors. The company then collects market research data through app games instead of traditional surveys—just to navigate biases and traditional response rates. In a few days, data returns to you with a national representative of the population as well as brand awareness statistics for your company.

As a companion, utilize Business Dynamics Statistics, which allows you see economic data on job creation, startups and shutdowns, business openings, expansions, and closures.

If you need assistance in where exactly to stay away from competition, there is ZoomProspector, a nifty tool allowing you to identify the optimal locations for startups, relocation or expansion of your or a client’s business.

Lastly, if you want to know how market research is evolving (and competing with itself), you can never go wrong with Greenbook’s GRIT Report.


Surveys and Focus Groups



If you want “free,” then obviously these tools are certainly quasi-scientific, at least in their no-cost levels. Nonetheless, they may present a snapshot of a brand or feedback on a product.

There are many and popular “free” survey platforms. We recommend the services of our sister company, QuestionPro, for their overall agility and intimate service (as they aren’t one of the mammoth survey providers). For an even simpler hack, Twitter and Facebook now provide polls if you happen to have a vibrant social media community for a quick data portrait.

Obviously, we recommend enterprise online surveys, which comes down to well-managed and highly-engaged panels. If you’re going the route of generic sample, use a free sample calculator to get closer to scientific.

As far as focus groups, Google Hangouts or a Skype group conversation is the way to go. Again, nothing scientific but certainly insightful or even stimulating.

If you really, really need brand analysis, try Userlytics—which provides a platform to test mobile apps, videos, display ads and more. It presents both a webcam and a screen recording of participant engagement. Afterwards, you can compare user answers with their reactions on video to understand how people are truly interacting with your brand. (Userlytics is not free, but it’s inexpensive, and that’s sometimes as good as free when you need a hack).





For a truly real free market research tool, we probably should have mentioned Siri or Cortana, but perhaps you already used them. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, as either platform is a close as rolling the dice as you can get. But you never know, right? In the end, there are more free market research tools available in cyberspace, but the ones we mentioned can move your research forward even as budgets and timelines move backward.


Poor survey data driving you crazy

May The Focus Group Be With You (Infographic)

‘Tis the Season…the Season for Star Wars, it seems, as The Force Awakens opens this week. Hopefully, the movie will improve on the dreaded prequels. Hopefully, Disney commissioned some focus groups before handing the reigns over to JJ Abrams.

Hopefully, in your market research, you have used or are considering using focus groups for qualitative projects. As qSample’s latest infographic details (channeling Star Wars for Jedi wisdom), 70% of all market research dollars at Fortune 500 companies are spent on focus groups. That’s stunning and telling at the same time.

Sure, only a minority of businesses can afford focus groups, but there are other options. Online focus groups are becoming more accessible with advances in technology. Furthermore, don’t forget that there are unscientific yet insightful focus groups in your digital domains: blog comment sections, product review posts, social media threads, and other online consumer projections.

You could also harness qSample’s QualStorm, a qualitative platform that combines internet and mobile technology to harness respondent feedback in a real-time. You can conduct in-depth interviews immediately after a respondent has completed an online survey. This allows a deeper probing into a respondent’s mind to achieve a higher level of granularity from your quantitative methodology.

Regardless and with that plug out of the way, we hope you enjoy our infographic on the fascinating journey to the Light Side that are focus groups.

Focus Groups Infographic

Download this infographic.

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4 Stellar Tips For A Galactic Online Focus Group

Online research is the favored method of analysis in the marketing industry. Thus, it’s no surprise that online surveys are booming across the internet skies, whereas telephone polling and paper surveys purportedly join that great market research heaven in the sky.

One could say the same regarding online focus groups. Although this mode of qualitative research is nowhere near the thunder of online surveys, advances in tech have made online focus groups feasible and cost-effective for researchers.

With this in mind and as online focus groups navigate to a new normal, it’s wise to stick to simple but stellar points to produce galactic data. We’ve compiled four points, all from thought leaders in the market research industry.

1. Stick to the script: Or more like make sure you have a script to begin with, according to market research company Lead. Online focus groups can become as chaotic as unregulated in-person focus groups—if not shepherded from beginning to end via a script. It should follow this pattern:

1. Welcome participants
2. Introduce the moderator
3. Explain the purpose of the focus group
4. Set the ground rules
5. Ask the first question

Oh, and make sure everything is on (but we’ll get to it). Lead also suggests you exclusively ask open-ended questions (we’re in that qualitative arena, remember) and keep the questions under ten. That way you can “elicit the maximum number of unique ideas from as many people as possible in the time allotted.”

2. Stick to the technology: That should be obvious with any mention of the word “online.” As research company Angelfish states:

Carefully consider which software provider you choose. Security is key, so you want to select a provider that will be able to ensure the privacy of the focus group. You also, of course, want software that everyone is comfortable using and that you feel will facilitate an online discussion with ease.

Moreover, Angelfish advises getting acquainted with the focus group software, testing and re-testing, and ensuring that the participants are educated as well.  As they further state:

Send your focus group participants information in advance on how to log in and use the platform. If they have detailed instructions to read ahead of time, or an instructional video to view, they will be better prepared on the day of the focus group and less likely to experience problems that will cause delays.

Stick to speed: Online focus groups grant several advantages to in-person focus groups: no need to travel, no bias due to physical appearances of others, and no large overheads. They also tend to be faster in pace, which can be dangerous if the moderator/analyst isn’t on his virtual feet all the times.

Basically, be a good typist.

Market research firm Flex says that proper recording tools are important, yet “for ad-hoc responses and probing, it makes life useful to be able to post a speedy reply before the discussion moves on. Now where did I leave that Mavis Beacon Teaches Typin’ disc?”

(A bit of a strange mention in the middle of a market research piece, but whatever…)

4. Stick to moderating: Being an able moderator is more important with online focus groups. Sure, you don’t have to worry about a fist-fight occurring during a sessions (those do happen!), but you don’t have the intimacy available in in-person focus groups.

Beyond typing fast and knowing technology, an able online moderator should have all the qualities of a traditional moderator: listening skills, objectiveness, emotional constraint, etc.

That’s still not enough.

According to market researcher Liz Van Patten of 20/20, an online moderator should be as visual as possible. That means “using colors and images of things like sticky notes to draw participants’ attention to certain areas” and “inserting pop-up pages to writing ‘walls of text.’”

Furthermore, Van Patten suggests:

Keep sessions under 40 minutes, as the internet just brings out the ADD in all of us.
– Don’t skimp on incentives because it’s happening online.




Stick to these four points when conducting an online focus groups and your market research will likely travel to those final frontiers of supernova data. Don’t forget to choose a good provider (whether it’s a third party market research group or software company). They should assist with any and all concerns including the four points mentioned.

Just don’t be disappointed if they don’t have lying around a copy of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typin’.


focus group button

5 Weird Pet Apps That Are Actually Legal

Cat with shocked expression

Apps seem to run our world, or at the very least manage them. There are over 3 million apps available from Google and Apple alone, and these address most consumer needs and certainly desires. No surprisingly, apps also address the needs and desires of consumer pets. Pet owner apps are available to assists in the training, tracking and lifestyle of pets. Some, like the Vet App, connect our very pet’s healthcare to veterinarians and animal hospitals.

Pet apps can be useful as they can be entertaining.

Some are just downright weird, though.

This article is where you’ll find them. Some of these questionable pet apps were actually mentioned in a recent interaction between qSample and our veterinarian panel during an online focus group for a client. Download these at your risk and amusement:


Go Pro Fetch

Go Fetch Pro

Reality television (and possibly the NSA) just went to the dogs.

With a special harness, strap on one of these bad-boy cameras to your dog, and then follow its antics with your mobile device. It’s not exactly James Bond, though. I mean, watching pooch smell the nearest dog’s rear or devour a half-eaten Chipotle burrito by the dumpster isn’t exactly a voyeuristic adventure.


Pooch Selfies

Dog Selfie

A selfie is a standard in the human domains, to the extent it brought about the questionable trope of being a mental disorder. So why not bring them to the canine domains?

This service is so simple it would make Narcissus’ dog happy. A peripheral attaches to a smartphone or tablet, leaving room for front and rear-facing cameras. The Pooch Selfie includes a tennis ball to hold a dog’s attention so you can immortalize him on social media (translation: nobody cares).

If the ball is misplaced, we advice against replacing it with bacon or a treat…


Dog Whistler

Dog Whistler

This iPhone app is taken very seriously by many dog owners—not even considered even that weird—as it has more than over 10 million unique users. And there are many other companies that provide this type of app.

Take control and teach your dog new tricks, or bring about a herd of angry pit bulls to your doorsteps (one of them assuredly with a Go Pro Fetch on its head).

As for cats, there is no app to summon them, but you can always turn on your electric can opener.




Cat and Snapchat meet here, but unfortunately don’t cancel each other out.

Perfect365 is an app that uses face recognition to find facial features. It then applies color tinting to make a person look like he or she is wearing makeup. This type of app or plugin on social media is not uncommon.

However, the rub is that Perfect365 has become very popular with cat owners, as seen by the above pic. Bugs Bunny could have used this app decades ago when running away from Elmer Fudd. These days it’s here to improve you feline’s appearance or get it ready for a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening.

Talk about the app that has launched a thousand more annoying memes.


Game for Cats

Game for Cats

Cats love to chase lasers unless wielded by mutated sea bass from Austin Powers. Now they can do that on a mobile device screen. They can even chase a mouse if that’s their feline predilection.

Does it work? The comment sections seem to indicate the app performs very well with some cats. As with Perfect365, I’m sure it has produced many memes to pollute your Facebook News Feed.


Pet People Meet

Pet People Meet

This is a dating app for pet owners. After all, people bring plenty of unseen baggage to relationships. Some can take the shape of a poorly housetrained greyhound or a person with allergies. Pet People Meet takes care of this type of baggage and unites animal lovers in romance.

For more friendship and less dating, check out DoggyDatez, more of a Meetup.com for pet owners. Buy hey, that won’t stop many men from borrowing their sister’s dogs to get into the scene.




There are more peculiar pet apps out there, I’m sure, but as mentioned there are also more than 3 million to sift through. In the end, what is weird to me (and our veterinarian panel) may not be weird to you. After all, some of these apps made it to our article Pet Owners and Their Smartphone Apps. Never mind that our previous marketing director is now head of the Mental Health Institute in North Korea.

Having said that, Americans will spend close to $60 billion this year on their pets. Thus, the only weirdness is not marketing to this demographic in any way possible.

veterinarians button

8 Honest Truths About Spotting Liars and Lying

Woman with a growing nose as she lied in front of a picture of wonder woman

As a provider of online focus groups, our team occasionally has the pleasure of observing market researchers perform qualitative mining on respondents. These sage researchers may not have a truth serum, but they come close in deciphering the intimate intentions of people during studies.

To be honest, it’s crucial these days that all of us take measures to separate truth from dishonesty in our daily lives. After all, it’s estimated that on any given day we’re lied to from 10 to 200 times. Furthermore, according University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman, 60% of people lie during a standard 10-minute conversation and average two to three lies during that time frame.

You heard it right. We are swimming upstream in lies during the flow of the day! Is there anything to do about it?

Machines are already doing it and doing it well. As qSample reported in our eye-tracking article, based on a University of Buffalo’s Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors:

In their study of 40 videotaped conversations, an automated system analyzing eye movements correctly identified whether subjects were lying or telling the truth 82.5 percent of the time. That’s a better accuracy rate than expert human interrogators typically achieve in lie-detection judgment experiments. (Experienced interrogators average closer to 65 percent.)

The study employed an automated system that focused wholly on eye movement.

You don’t have to wait for the rise of the machines, though, or winning the lottery to afford eye-tracking technology. You can begin training yourself to pierce falsehoods by simply beginning to understand certain foundational truths about spotting liars and lying.

In a recent Business Insider article on how to detect liars, Paul Ekman provides these insights on truth-telling. Ekman’s is renowned for his scientific work on lying. His research was the basis for the television series Lie to Me. He was also a consultant for the Pixar hit Inside Out and worked for Homeland Security.


The 8 Truths About Liars and Lying


1. Everyone lies – Not surprising. In fact, studies have shown that even babies learn to lie at an early age, using such tactics such as “fake crying and pretend laughing” to win attention from parents. When it comes to adults, Ekman states that most humans are involved in what is called “low stake lies.” These include politeness, flattery or simply avoiding verbal injury upon others. Low stake lies essentially keep society together.

2. Not everyone lies, though – That’s hard to believe, and many will say Ekman is lying. However, there are individuals who—when it comes to serious financial, personal or moral issues —will always “err” on the side of honesty. According to Ekman, those who are deceitful when it comes to serious issues are engaging in “high stake” Some people mercifully never employ high stake lies.

3. It’s not hard to spot lying from behavior – Ekman always looks for “hot spots,” those signs that people aren’t divulging the whole story. He claims there are 30. The two most important ones are micro facial expressions and gestural slips. One illustration of a gestural slip is a slight shrug, usually of one shoulder, coinciding with a verbal declaration of confidence; another one is a small head shake no, only very slight, when saying “yes.”

4. Women are not better are spotting lies – Everyone has trouble spotting high stake In many cases, people simply would rather go into denial than accept someone close to them is being deceitful. That certainly affects mothers and wives as much as it affects fathers and husbands. Facing the truth is painful when it comes to liars who are close to us.

5. Psychopaths are not the best liars – We can thank Hollywood for the trope of the silky sicko spinning a web of lies. Psychopaths follow the same rules are everyone else. The difference, in most instances, is that they tend to blind others with their charm.

6. Looking up and to the left is not a sign of lying – We discussed this in our article on eye-tracking, and Ekman supports the fact that sight direction is unrelated to honesty (unless you’re employing expensive video and algorithms on your side, as with the University of Buffalo). Guess we can dismiss any notions of spotting lies in David Caruso…

7. Micro facial expressions are not proof of dishonesty – Individuals often aren’t concealing the truth but simply concealing underlying emotions (like an innocent person being fearful because he or she is suspected of lying). According to Ekman, the key is to find out why a person is concealing their emotions in the first place, as to assess whether it’s a sign of guilt of the offense being investigated.

8. The polygraph is not reliable – That is common knowledge, but many cling stubbornly to this chestnut. Ekman explains there is no silver bullet when it comes to lying. That would have to include eye-tracking technology. The polygraph is slightly better at lie-detecting than mere chance and it has its uses in criminal investigations (as in giving investigators a starting point on whom to investigate).

For the perfect lie detector tool, we’ll have to wait until someone creates the Lasso of Truth used by Wonder Woman (in fact, the creator of this superhero, William Mouton Marston, was the inventor of the first machine-powered lie detector).


Actionable Tips for Spotting Liars and Lying


This list will not land you in one of the focus group research teams qSample works with…or a job with the FBI for that matter. They are simply sensible starting to points to at least dispel stubborn myths on lying. As the Business Insider article proffers, if you want to go further in recognizing lies you can take some of Ekman’s self-training courses on reading facial expressions.

For assistance, you can furthermore watch this outstanding TED Talk with Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting.

As a complement of Meyer’s research, Feldman offers some bodily signs indicating you’re being lied to:

Covering of the mouth
Too much repetition or too much detail
Body preparing for an escape (feet pointing to the nearest exit is a classic one)
Words and body language don’t match
Change in breathing during a conversation
Eye movement changes from normal pattern
Aggressive behavior appearing during a conversation for no apparent reason

It’s important to note that these bodily signs, alone or in combination, are by no means concrete proof of dishonesty. Feldman, Meyer and Ekman all agree it’s a matter of awareness and practice in detecting clusters of these bodily signs that point to a lie.

In the end, these researchers contend lying is a two-way street, a cooperative act—whether it’s seeing advertisements on the television or talking to a silver-tongued coworker. Someone who is lying wants something from you (even if it’s not having his or her feelings hurt). How much power you will give them is a matter of how aware you want to be in the relationship. Unfortunately, too many individuals want to descend into denial simply to go about their busy days.

And perhaps hoping eye-tracking technology or Wonder Woman will appear at their doorsteps.

Case Study Why Consumers Buy Green


lying article3


Freud and the Intriguing History of Focus Groups

Focus groups may be seen as a dry scientific approach to market research. It may be so, but the actual origins of the focus groups are intriguing—replete with military intelligence, depth psychology, and a range of basic human instincts that of course include sex.

At its core, the history of the focus group is a fascinating journey into the innovative mind of one of the founding fathers of modern marketing.

Focus groups before they were focus groups:

The genesis of focus groups is generally attributed to sociologist Robert Merton in 1946 at the US Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University. It began as a form of  to determine the social and mental effects of mass communications on the general public. Merton was a pioneer in the area of group studies. He conducted significant research on the effects of radio broadcasts, as well as Army training and morale films.

Basically, it was all research into understanding the effectiveness of propaganda.

The focus group hits puberty:

Enter Viennese psychologist and marketing guru Ernest Dichter, soon after the war ended and Merton’s “group studies” were standing around doing nothing. Dichter took this nascent methodology and ran with it into the next decade. He actually coined the term “focus group.” His ideas formed the modern manifestation of the focus group for market research.

Dichter was an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, and thus saw humans are driven by unconscious, irrational and often visceral desires. This went against the grain of market analysis in those days—a domain of quantitate research and face-value customer inquiry.

Dichter disagreed with these methodologies, chiding them as “nose counting.” He claimed that people’s shopping cravings were hidden like an iceberg below an ocean of the subconscious. Only through interaction and insight could a researcher decipher the true longing and concerns of consumers; and these were tethered to sexual cravings, parent issues, archetypal social fears and what not! As Dichter wrote in his book Strategy of Desire:

You would be amazed to find how often we mislead ourselves, regardless of how smart we think we are, when we attempt to explain why we are behaving the way we do…What people actually spend their money on in most instances are psychological differences, illusory brand images… If you let somebody talk long enough, you can read between the lines to find out what he really means.

Focus groups were, according to Dichter, the solution to leverage the deepest requirements of consumers. That’s what he employed primarily in his studies, calling his style of examination “motivational research.” He rapidly became one of the most successful marketers of the mid-20th century.

Even more, focus groups were a chance to conduct therapy on consumers, not just gather information. Dichter didn’t just wish to unearth the desires of participants in focus groups, but rather sought primal urges that could potentially be manipulated for the future.

The golden age of focus groups:

Here some of the successful marketing campaigns Dichter executed (and his psychological reasons behind them).

– Chrysler Plymouth convertible: Men widely wanted this car, seeing it as a symbol of virility and youth, but ultimately acquiesced to their wives’ wishes (usually walking out of the dealership with a sensible sedan). To solve this, Dichter advertised the convertible directly to women, describing it as a “home” product that stabilized the family.
– Ivory Soap: Dichter proposed that every product had a soul (“branding,” as we might call it today). One had to tap into that soul to understand its function. Ivory Soap’s soul was at its core composed of sensuality and privacy. Its purpose was to grant woman some “alone time” in the bath tub, a break from their families and a purist society.
– Barbie Doll: Dichter was convinced dolls were a projection of a little girl’s future self. He was able to persuade Mattel to make Barbie as beautiful and curvaceous as possible (or “sexual,” as he explained). After all and after puberty, people are mostly thinking of one thing…
– Betty Crocker Instant Cake Mix: Dichter discovered that adding an egg to the recipe seemed to bestow women with a sense they were participating in the cooking experience (unnecessary as the mix already included dried egg, but this catapulted the sales of the product). His reasoning was that the egg symbolized ovaries, and thus women felt they were metaphorically giving birth to something wonderful.

It is said that sex sells, but to a Freudian like Dichter the truth is that sex buys. Our sexual urges and identities are with us every moment, even when purchasing mundane items, Dichter thought. He always advocated, not always successfully, that his clients heavily employ phallic symbols, curvatures in design and pleasured-looking models—all coyly hidden in a conservative era.

As mentioned, it wasn’t just sex that dominated humans, but fundamental Maslovian and tribal wants. As one historian explained:

Dichter’s approach was rooted in a deep intuition and a keen understanding of basic human needs, rather than scientific method or quantitative analysis. He knew that people use objects to express their identities, and he recognized that objects hold different meanings for different people. Factors such as income, social position, race, gender, age and ethnicity all figured into his qualitative analysis of what consumers revealed in the focus groups. In defense of his touchy-feely techniques, Dichter often said, “Insight is my answer.”

The fall and rise of the focus group:

By the 60s, Dichter’s motivational research fell out of favor for market research studies. The rise of computer analysis and other factors swung research back to more quantitative realms (not to mention Freudian thinking also became unpopular). Dichter himself was relegated to a small-time consultant and occasional lecturer, a footnote of a glorious era.

Yet Dichter’s legacy remained, and his ideas have made a comeback in the Information Age (as has qualitative market research). The “soul” (or branding) of a product is more important than ever. Understanding the subconscious of a person is back in style in the business world—as companies study the brainwaves, eye movements, instinctive reactions, and other less-obvious aspects of customers. Google and other companies are spending a fortune on predictive analytics, attempting to predict consumer future behavior based on past data.

As our own research revealed:

According to leading neuroscientists, 95 percent of all thoughts, emotions and learning occur before people are cognizant of it. Therefore, most of what goes into our purchasing decisions can be attributed to our subconscious. Visual perception influences our buying decisions the most. KISSmetrics found that nearly 93 percent of buying decisions are based on visual stimuli. Six percent was based on touch and the remaining was divided up into sight and smell.

Steven Jobs famously said: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He didn’t mean that a company ought to force-feed products to consumers. Rather, there existed a vast terrain in their subconscious that needed to be examined before any marketing campaign. Jobs was notorious for listening to consumers keenly and on a number of different levels.

Lastly, focus groups are more key than ever for marketing analysis, especially since they can now be conducted online with accurate results.

In a way, the internet has become a vast couch of Freudian therapy—full of memes and sex and blurred commerce. Dichter, who died in 1991, would probably be very proud of the internet, even if his conscious mind might not admit it was proud…

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That One Piece of Information that can Change Your Company

Information is power, it is said. It is also said the universe itself is made up of entirely information strung into codes and coalescing into matter.

So even if money makes the world go around, information fuels the very universe.

In business, all it takes is one piece of information to make a universe of difference. This piece of information is often discovered in the seemingly mundane and scientific world of survey panels and study groups.

That once piece of information is all it takes. Take these three momentous examples:


How Betty got her groove

Betty Crocker released the first instant cake mix in the 50s. Consumers did not exactly devour this revolutionary recipe that provided an entire cake by just adding water to the mix, and then baking it. What could be done?

That one piece of information: Through studies and surveys, Better Crocker determined that homemakers felt the water and mix combination took away from the cooking experience. It was too simple. By adding an egg to the baking instructions (even if the mix already contained powdered egg), instant cake mixes took off because people felt they were baking something real.


Would you like huge profits with your meal?

McDonald’s began to lose steam in the 70s after a meteoric rise. How could it continue to thrive as one of the country’s chief eateries?

That one piece of information: Through empirical and psychological research, McDonald’s realized that Americans held a social stigma about ordering twice at restaurants (no matter how hungry or thirsty they felt!). The solution was to offer larger meals and gradually normalize the process (“Super size it?”) The process was gradual, though, culminating in the 90s—but it made universes around the waists of consumers.


Saving Private Canine

In the present, over 1.2 million dogs are euthanized every year in the U.S., and teen crime is a persistent problem. Is there a possible connection to these two issues?

That one piece of information: There certainly is, according to a recent study by researcher and clinical psychologist Jessica Thomas. At risk youths who are given a dog and taught how to care for it, heal emotionally and gain the coping skills to adapt to society. There are already nonprofit programs that unite dogs with troubled youths; but the ability of dogs to increase the humanity of humans could be a potent marketing tool for companies, breeders, and veterinarians.

In each mentioned case, all it took was that one piece of information to change things, and even change the very architecture of public perception. Finding the information was not swashbuckling or creative, but the usual “mundane and scientific” research—but once found it created amazing adventure.

Survey panels and study groups are indeed essential. That is where any business can find that one piece of information that fuel its universe for eons (okay, a long time at least).