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Using focus groups to evaluate layouts, storyboards or commercials makes agencies crazy-especially the writers and art directors (who are often excluded from the back room in the fear that they will react in a socially unacceptable way).

This is a shame because, in theory, there is a lot to be learned about copy from focus groups.

Does the advertising generate excitement? Is it advertising people want to see often? Is it easily and completely understood? Does it make the target audience disposed to buy? Are there any minor changes that would make it more likable, easier to understand or more persuasive?

With such a good match between what the client wants, the agency wants and the consumer is ready to offer, there shouldn't be a problem-except the theory doesn't work.


Focus groups were developed as a research tool to allow and encourage people to build on each other's ideas. This is the exact opposite of what is wanted from copy research, where the objective is to find out how the commercial impacts each respondent without the influence of the ideas of others.

So when in the course of human events the first respondent blurts out "boring" and that's followed by two more "boring's," there is a tendency for the agency to believe the group is being con-taminated by a dominant respondent, while the client believes the commercial is a yawn.

The problem is that either or both could be right.

Some researchers believe one way around the problem is to have each respondent in the group write down the answer to each question before anyone says anything. To a great extent, this actually works.

But the written answers tend to be much shorter and less revealing than conversational answers, requiring the moderator to ask each respondent in turn, "What did you mean by that?" These answers can then be influenced by the comments of other respondents.


Next time it's time to research some copy, resist focus groups and hold out for depth interviews. Hands down, these one-on-one interviews are the best qualitative tool for copy research.

They avoid all of the problems focus groups pose. You have one interviewer giving full attention to just one respondent at a time. The respondent is subject only to the influence of the creative stimuli and the insidious questions posed by the interviewer.

Each respondent's understanding and feelings can be probed in detail and at leisure. You get pure answers to the questions you would use in a focus group, plus you can throw in some that would not work in a group, such as: "Tell me everything you recall seeing and hearing" (for recall); and "Does that commercial tell you anything about [the brand] you didn't know, or make you think about it any differently?" (for persuasion).

Generally, a 30-minute depth interview can handle up to three 30-second commercials without loss of respondent interest. The interviewer has ample time to learn the nature of the respondent's feelings and the intensity of these feelings without the respondent being subject to influence from other participants.


Another advantage of the depth interview is that it permits a scheduling pattern that can change a day of copy research from an extended confrontation into an agency/client work session.

You can schedule four blocks, or 12 interviews, in a day. Predictable consumer response patterns usually emerge between the seventh and twelfth interview, at which point you have your answers.

The net result of a day of copy depth interviews is a high level of learning unencumbered by extraneous influence. The day invariably engenders a spirit of cooperation leading to peaceful decisions about appropriate next steps. Occasionally, it also leads to better copy or saving a good commercial that might not have survived the jungle warfare of a focus group.

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