Getting the most out of focus groups

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Trying to determine whether spending valuable time and resources on focus groups is the right move for your campaign? Consider this: one of the most memorable and influential ads in campaign history was the product of, you guessed it, a focus group.

Legendary pollster Peter Hart was conducting a focus group for former Vice President Walter Mondale during his 1984 Democratic primary battle with then-Sen. Gary Hart. The focus group participants were almost glowing in their description of the senator as “dynamic,” “young,” and a candidate who could represent a “new era” in Democratic politics. To those in the room, Mondale was “old” and his politics were “stale.”

So Mondale’s pollster tried another tack: Imagine the U.S. is suddenly thrust into an international crisis. Who would you rather have in the White House answering that call at 3 a.m.?

“There was a feeling that Hart just didn’t have the experience to handle that,” remembers Peter Hart. It was in response to that scenario that he saw the electoral potential in reinforcing to voters the idea that Mondale would be a steady and experienced hand at a time fraught with potential international peril.  

“You just can’t get that from a poll,” explains Hart. “From those reactions, we came up with the red phone spot.”

But despite the potential of the focus group, it has lost some of its cache in recent cycles, say many strategists. Candidates and campaigns are either using the tool too infrequently, or employing it incorrectly. When used in the right context, says Republican strategist Tyler Harber, focus groups can be the perfect tool to help craft and tweak a candidate’s message.  

“In the past 10 years, there has been a significant decline in the use of focus groups in campaigns,” says Harber, a partner at The Prosper Group. And, he argues, too many campaigns that have committed the time and resources to focus group research have been far too focused on gaining quantitative information out of the process. The real premium should be placed on the qualitative side.

“There’s an opportunity to get so much deeper with a focus group than you can with a survey,” says Hart, who has conducted focus groups for several Democratic presidential hopefuls.

After surveying a few research gurus ourselves, we’ve compiled some tips to help make your focus groups worthwhile:  

Timing Is Everything

When it comes to using focus groups, there is one thing most strategists agree on—the earlier, the better. Diving right into the focus group process “allows you to develop a campaign theme early on,” says Randall Gutermuth, a pollster at American Viewpoint, who has conducted countless focus groups for clients.

By starting early, a campaign can also build in the cost of multiple stages of focus group sessions, allowing you to tweak a message over time and measure that against what the quantitative side of your campaign’s research is telling you. 

TargetPoint Consulting’s Alex Lundry says an ideal research plan, independent of budget, begins with an exploratory focus group to help the campaign identify “the best words, messages, and images” it can employ.  

Be Image Conscious

“Trying to use a focus group without considering image is a failure,” emphasizes Harber. It’s sometimes easy to forget that message comes in many forms, not just through spoken words or ads. Focus groups offer the chance to gain valuable feedback about the look and feel of campaign materials—everything from colors to symbols to fonts. Understanding that any and every detail of a commercial or mail piece has the potential to impact the overall perception of a candidate makes it worthwhile to use some focus group time on the smaller details.

Foster Conversation

One of the most critical aspects of the focus group is the moderator and his or her ability to drive the discussion. You want to foster an environment that allows you to absorb what focus group participants have to say, and to understand their perception of your candidate.

“[As a moderator], you’re in a bubble and assume voters discuss issues like you do, so you may think you’re talking clearly about an issue but it may not be filtering down,” Republican pollster David Kanevsky warns. One way to prevent a communication gap from developing is spending some time to loosen up the group right from the outset. Lundry suggests “taking the first few minutes to build trust by opening up with questions that are easy to answer—name, date, top issues—really straightforward questions that get the blood flowing.”

Ultimately, focus groups are not meant to serve the same purpose as traditional survey research. If your campaign is viewing them that way, it’s already off on the wrong foot. Focus groups provide valuable information that polling cannot, and they can quite successfully capture the “shades of gray” in voter opinion that surveys simply don’t. 

“For me, it’s still the way to gain real insight into what’s in the gut of the voter,” says Peter Hart. “You can actually see something visually hit [the voter], and that’s invaluable.”


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