One of the things social psychologists can end up doing with their degrees is marketing research, but I get the feeling not many do. I've seen an awful lot of terrible market research and I'm not the only one. Yesterday I had an amusing time reading an article on the focus group as a method of ferreting out what people like.
The idea of the focus group is to get a group of people sitting around talking about the product with the help of a facilitator to ask questions and guide discussions. The article concluded the focus group is dead as a technique because of a few prominent cases of focus group research gone bad. The one that stands out is the focus group that missed how badly loyal viewers of the SciFi channel would react to its name being changed to SyFy. The article went on to hint around that the team didn't think to ask loyal viewers and instead asked people who were not regular viewers. Their big mistake was not that they used a focus group methodology, but that they failed to get an appropriate sample.
Sampling is king in human behavioral research. If you don't start with wise sampling, your research is gonna be bunk no matter how adeptly you adhere to proven methodology.
The article also failed to grasp the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research. The focus group is a great way to get qualitative research. It doesn't pair down attitudes, desires, and preferences into abstract numbers with questionable meaning. What do you think of the packaging of this product? "6" is hardly informative, but an answer like "The cacophony of bright colors is distracting and I can't really make out what that lettering says" at least gives
the company a specific direction to go during future research — and that is exactly the point of qualitative research methodologies like focus groups. Conduct them first to hone specific questions for further, qualitative, research.
When it comes to advertising and PR, newspapers could take a lesson from psychologists. Don't go around blasting all over the airwaves, pages, blogs, etc that your industry is ... well ... completely fucked. I cannot tell you how many stories I've seen that scream: ad revenue is down, circulation is down and our website isn't generating enough revenue. Then the whisper: Page views on our website are up and we get millions of hits. People are going to remember the negative information more readily. Newspapers are literally publishing their own worst PR right now.
This morning I browsed through our local entertainment weekly and saw an advertisement that said: Newspaper advertising is a destination, not a distraction. WHAT?! Why tell your readers *and* your current and future advertising clients that people think the ads are a distraction? Sell the positive without mentioning the negative.
Another ad, a PSA in the same publication, had the words: That Mexican is pretty smart. Mexican was crossed out, with the idea being that we should focus on the fact that he's smart. I know race relations are a huge problem in this country and that illegal immigration specifically is a hot button issue, but who really thinks those kinds of PSAs are gonna make anyone less racist? I'd much rather see a bunch of PSAs that read: That guy is pretty smart. Or that girl is pretty smart. At least then it would signal that being smart is valued in this country — a message that I think is sorely needed.